NEW YORK - Some prominent Democrats are urging Gov. Bill Clinton to use the bank and thrift industries woes as an issue againsts President Bush.
"I think the Democrats missed a great opportunity in 1988," Rep. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said during a break on the floor of the Democratic convention. "We ought not repeat that in 1992."
Assigning the Blame
Mr. Schumer said President Bush was vulnerable because the Republicans were in charges of the regulatory agencies during the 1980s, when the savings and loan industry collapsed. Today, he said, the administration is encouraging lenient regulations for the banking industry.
His vierwpoint was supported broadly by other Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Mary Rose Okar of Ohio and California congressman Esteban Torres and Richard Lehman.
So far, Gov. Clinton has shown no inclination to make an issue out of the role of Republican-appointed regulators in dealing with banking and thrift problems.
Focus on Banking
But if he heeds the advice of such key Democrats as Rep. Schumer, the banking industry may have as much at stake as President Bush.
Many bankers believe their industry was seriously wounded in the 1989 banking bill because the political climate was so hostile.
This year, the potential exists again for banking to become a political football, said Fred Martin, senior vice president and director of government affairs for San Francisco-based Bank-America Corp.
That's particularly true because many people equate the banking and thrift industries, he said. "It would be disastrous if they drew a false parallel" between the problems of the banking industry and those of thrifts in the 1980s, he said.
Four years ago, it was apparent to many in Washington that the thrift industry required a bailout that would, at a minimum, cost tens of billions.
Some, like Rep. Schumer, thought the Republicans should be pressed on the issue because of their eight-year stewardship of the industry.
Other Democrats were reluctant to do so because some prominent members of their own party were also vulnerable. Chief among them was House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Tex., who had intervened with regulators on behalf of texas thrifts.
A Late Entrant
The party's presidential candidate, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, did not raise the issue until the very end of the campaign, and even then he did not attack hard. Instead, he limited his efforts to a tersely-worded statement calling for "regulators who can regulate" that was issued through Rep. Schumer's office.
As a result, most Americans and many prominent lawmakers went to the polls not knowing that the cost for the bailout would run well over $100 billion.
"I put myself high on the list of those who didn't know what was going on," said Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, D-N.Y.
However, Sen. Moynihan said it was unlikely that the banking industry's problems would be addressed in the campaign. "That hasn't happened since 1932," he said. "The issues are just too complicated."
Even so, Mr. Moynihan said, "I wish we had made an issue of it four years ago."
"Banks will be kind of incidental to the issue of getting the economy going again," added David Danovitch, a Washington lawyer with long-standing Democratic connections.
"Clinton will use it the way Bush has, to call on banks to get back to lending to small businesses," added Mr. Danovitch, who is here for the convention.
Some Democratic lawmakers said banking issues should be handled with caution.
"Banking is a very fragile industry," said Rep. Oakar of Ohio. "I don't want to see any institution fail because of a lack of confidence."
And House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., who has spent long, difficult hours trying to piece together a majority to pass new funding for the S&L bailout, said he would prefer to see the candidates focus their attention elsewhere.