Growing right-wing opposition to the Paulson plan

With the election looming, the same right-wing faction that spent eight years cheering on every instance of unlimited executive power suddenly fears such power.

Published September 22, 2008 11:47AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

On Saturday morning, I noted -- quoting Atrios -- the almost complete lack of debate over the ever-changing dictates issued by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. Last week, whatever Paulson said on any given day -- no bailouts; only selected bailouts; massive $700 billion bailout plan -- immediately became the unchallenged conventional wisdom.

That has all changed. Prominent economists, who had previously been defending Paulson for the most part, began voicing serious doubts about his plan. As the AP put it yesterday: "Many of the same economists and opinion-makers who'd provided a bipartisan sheen of consensus to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's previous moves have quickly begun casting doubts on the wisdom of a policy that would allow Treasury to purchase without oversight hundreds of billions of dollars of difficult-to-price assets from financial institutions." Not only Paul Krugman, who was a skeptic from the start, but conservative economic experts have also now expressed opposition, including former Bush and Romney advisor Greg Mankiw and -- in an excellent column on Saturday -- Sebastian Mallaby, who described the rapid move to embrace Paulson's plan as "extremely dangerous."

And now, some of the most rabid ideologues on the Right are voicing increasingly strident opposition as well. At National Review last night, Newt Gingrich wrote that "watching Washington rush to throw taxpayer money at Wall Street has been sobering and a little frightening" and said he "hopes Congress will slow down and have an open debate." Thereafter, NR's Yuval Levin proclaimed that nobody could read through the Paulson proposal "without concluding that everyone in Washington has lost their minds." In The New York Times today, Bill Kristol said he's "doubtful that the only thing standing between us and a financial panic is for Congress to sign this week, on behalf of the American taxpayer, a $700 billion check over to the Treasury," while Michelle Malkin posted a lengthy alarmist screed warning that "Hank Paulson must be contained."

Right-wing opposition to the Paulson plan is vital for having any meaningful chance to stop it. Does anyone have any confidence at all in the Democrats' willingness and/or ability to impede this bailout train if the Bush administration and the Right were vigorously behind it, warning the nation of impending doom unless we submit to vast, unchecked government power of the type Henry Paulson is demanding? The instances of complete Democratic acquiescence under those circumstances -- including when they "controlled" the Congress -- are far too numerous to allow any rational person to think Democrats, standing alone, would stop the Paulson plan. As sad as it is, meaningful right-wing opposition is critical for that to happen.

More interesting are the reasons why these right-wing polemicists have decided they have real doubts about the wisdom of the Paulson plan. In opposing the plan, each of them cited -- with alarm -- the provision which vests full, unfettered and unreviewable discretion in the Treasury Secretary to determine how the $700,000,000,000 is allocated: Levin (plan gives "essentially unlimited power to use $700 billion to make purchases the scope of which is defined very loosely and vaguely"); Gingrich ("We are being reassured that we can trust Secretary Paulson 'because he knows what he is doing'. Congress had better ask a lot of questions before it shifts this much burden to the taxpayer and shifts this much power to a Washington bureaucracy"); Kristol ("There are no provisions for — or even promises of — disclosure, accountability or transparency"); Malkin (Washington is demanding we "fork over $700 billion to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and allow him to dole it out to whomever he chooses in whatever amount he chooses -- without public input or recourse").

Apparently, the same political faction that has cheered on every instance of unchecked, absolute executive power over the last eight years -- which demanded that the President, and he alone, decide which citizens, including Americans, can be spied on, detained, even tortured, and that no oversight or disclosure was needed for any of that -- has suddenly re-discovered their desire for checks on federal government power. The reason? They say it themselves: with the looming prospect of an Obama presidency, they may no longer be in charge of that Government and these "small government conservatives" have thus suddenly re-awoken to the virtues of checks and balances, oversight and other restraints.

In explaining his opposition to the Paulson plan, Levin warns:

Even if Hank Paulson were the all knowing god of economics, would it make sense to give this kind of power to the treasury secretary for the next two years just forty days before an election? Shall we go through our mental list of who an Obama administration (or a McCain administration for that matter) is likely to put in that post?

Gingrich writes:

Imagine that the political balance of power in Washington were different.

If this were a Democratic administration the Republicans in the House and Senate would be demanding answers and would be organizing for a "no" vote . . . . But because this gigantic power shift to Washington and this avalanche of taxpayer money is being proposed by a Republican administration, the normal conservative voices have been silent or confused.

It's time to end the silence and clear up the confusion.

Malkin is actually worried about vesting such power in Paulson himself -- she thinks he's basically a tool of the Communist Chinese, a follower of "Gore-esque" eco-zealotry, and worst of all, someone with ties to some Democrats -- but the point is the same: people have long predicted that the Right will do a complete reversal (once again) in their positions on vast federal power and unlimited executive authority the minute that such power is vested in someone they oppose and fear rather than in themselves. The remarkable spectacle of watching these right-wing authoritarians suddenly demand Congressional oversight and voice opposition to unlimited executive power -- two months before a highly possible Obama victory -- is quite obviously reflective of that shift.

Rather hilariously, this was the very first comment from a Malkin reader after she sounded the alarm about the provision in the Paulson plan providing that his decisions are "non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency":

So something that is unconstitutional cannot be reviewed by a Federal court? I guess, not even the Supreme Court. Well, if it is accepted, a precedent has been set, which will allow other proposals/bills to go through, regardless of legality, being "non-reviewable" by Federal court. A government running amok . . . with people cheering.

This person obviously has no idea that such provisions are hardly "unprecedented," but have been appearing in several of the most controversial bills of the last eight years (as but one example, The Military Commissions Act, a right-wing favorite, essentially purported to bar courts from reviewing the President's decisions about who to detain and further barred judicial review of the Congressional scheme, and similar "court-stripping provisions" have long been a right-wing favorite in all sorts of contexts). And more generally, this is how our Government has worked: the President demands unlimited power and Congress gives it to him. It's only because visions of a Muslim, terrorist-sympathizing, socialist President Obama are haunting them in their feverish nightmares is the Right suddenly deeply fearful once again of vesting vast power in the Federal Government and the Executive.

But no matter. The blatant hypocrisy here, while extreme, craven and obvious, is also healthy. Hypocrisy of this sort is actually a vital part of how checks and balances are supposed to work. It is expected that political factions, when in charge of the government, will seek to obtain greater power for themselves, and the check against that is that the "opposition party" will battle and resist -- not necessarily out of ideology or principle but due to raw power considerations and self-interest.

That is what has been so tragically missing from our political process for the last eight years: while the GOP sought greater and greater government power, Democrats acquiesced almost completely when they weren't complicitly enabling it. While the Executive was off the charts in terms of the power it seized, the Congress was off the charts in its passivity and eagerness to relinquish its Constitutionally assigned powers to the Bush White House. That's what has caused the extreme imbalance, with a bloated Republican Party and virtually unlimited presidential power: the failure of Democrats and the Congress to serve as a check on any of that. As their newfound contempt for unlimited power makes conclusively clear, the executive-power-worshipping Republicans of the last eight years -- if there is an Obama presidency -- will quickly re-discover their limited government power "principles" and won't be nearly as accommodating.

UPDATE: I should add that Congressional Democrats, while largely on board with the fundamentals of the bailout plan, have been making noises about demanding some limits and oversight on how this fund is managed, and the political climate is certainly part of what is motivating the Right to voice these doubts, as illustrated by the bizarre and deeply cynical spectacle of the GOP presidential nominee -- of all people -- joining with the Democrats to demand limits on CEO compensation. The point, though, is that Democrats typically make noises of this type and then capitulate at the end if they stand alone. This Paulson bill can be stopped only with widespread opposition that cuts across the standard ideological/partisan lines, and it shouldn't be that hard to argue why handing over $700 billion to the very people who caused this disaster, while allowing them to walk away soaked with profits, is not a good idea, and that vesting unlimited power in the Bush administration to manage that is a particularly bad idea. If Democrats can't win that argument, what argument can they win?

UPDATE II: A Rasmussen Reports poll released today found that "most Americans are closely following news reports on the Bush Administration's federal bailout plan for the country’s troubled economy, but just 28% support what has been proposed so far." Thirty-seven percent oppose it and 35% are unsure. As El Zongo notes in comments, this bailout -- like the FISA gutting and telecom amnesty which preceded it -- has no real constituency beyond the Washington establishment. That the public is so opposed and/or primed to oppose it more doesn't mean this won't pass -- we don't exactly have a substantial connection between what Washington does and public opinion -- but it does provide an important foundation for derailing this if political leaders decide they should or must.

UPDATE III: More here on right-wing pretenses to limited government power.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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