Facing the Angry Ducks

When Congress returns for a lame duck session today, conservatives need to begin staking out the principles from which they will not retreat. The Democrats’ agenda for more nationalization of the economy, following hard upon the weekend’s economic summit, boosts this task up to the first and most immediate priority.

The lame duck session should be a dress rehearsal for conservatives to organize against the liberal legislative tsunami that may yet swamp them in the 111th Congress convening in January.

Two issues must be faced immediately. First is the failing bank bailout which the Democrats are eager to extend into the manufacturing sector with the acquiescence (and apparent support) of the Bush administration. Having nationalized much of the financial sector, that unholy alliance now aims to nationalize a large part of the means of production. Which is the classical definition of socialism.

To re-establish conservative principle as the governing philosophy of the Republican Party, conservatives will have to take political risks and — in a great many cases — break cleanly with the Bush administration.

One fundamental fact eludes the White House and Congressional Dems: you cannot be prosperous unless you are free. The more our economy is nationalized, the longer it will be paralyzed.

Last week, both Speaker Pelosi and President-elect Obama said they want some undefined part of the $700 billion bailout to go to the automobile industry and not as loans. Pelosi and others in Congress want the government to buy parts of GM and possibly Ford and Chrysler as well. Obama said he wants some $50 billion to go to the automakers who would then be placed under the supervision of some Car Czar who would oversee the companies. Now credit card-issuer American Express is asking for $3.5 billion in bailout money to solve its problems.

The $700 billion was put in Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s federal checkbook supposedly to buy up the toxic — meaning unsalable — mortgage-backed securities that were clogging the credit market so badly that even bank-to-bank loans could not be made.

But Paulson has abandoned that plan. “Our assessment at this time is that this (the purchase of unmarketable securities) is not the most effective way to use funds,” he said in a press conference last Wednesday. And – on the same day President Bush spoke of the need to minimize government control of the economy – Paulson urged Congress to come up with funding to bail out the car makers.

I stand on what I wrote on September 25, before the bailout passed. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke had told a Congressional hearing that we didn’t know if the bailout would work or what it would cost. Why in Heaven’s name, then, did we do it? Now — by admitting that buying unmarketable mortgage-backed securities isn’t the way to go — Paulson is saying that the emergency power he’d asked for was aimed at the wrong target.

Why should we believe that he’s now aiming the $700 billion shotgun at the right target? And why on earth should conservatives refrain from doing everything they can to reverse what has been done and prevent more trillion-dollar trial and error?

Conservatives should — today — plant their feet and say “no more.” As a first step, there must be no compromise in opposing further nationalization of our economy.

This week, conservatives in the Senate and House should unite and stand firm against any expansion of the bailouts. The airlines have been functioning under conditions imposed in bankruptcy. Bailing out car makers — rather than imposing conditions that may lead to a long-term recovery — makes no sense. As to American Express, we can leave home without it.

Conservatives are out of power, not out of ideas. No one is thinking about how to get government back out of the economy. Conservative leaders in the Senate and House should draft and propose a plan to reduce and reverse – with the goal of eliminating – government ownership and control of the financial markets. As eagerly as Democrats want to pull US troops out of Iraq, conservatives should be to "withdraw US forces" from Wall Street.

Looking at Paulson and the rest, they can make the powerful point that no one is smarter than the market itself, and left alone the market will repair itself better and quicker than the government ever will.

The second issue they must chart a new course on is the war. Not the “wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in recognition that there is only one war: between the nations that sponsor terrorism rooted in radical Islam and the Western world.

That President-elect Obama wants to withdraw our troops from Iraq within sixteen months. That may turn out to be an inevitable outcome because the Iraqi parliament seems as determined as Obama to get our troops out. Until last weekend, negotiations on the Status of Forces Agreement were stalled. It’s now possible that an agreement can be reached before January 1, when the UN mandate expires. But the need to withdraw from Iraq is independent of the Iraqis’ recalcitrance. President-elect Obama must be taken at his word that withdrawal will happen within sixteen months of his inauguration.

Conservatives should not be shy about shedding their affinity for President Bush’s nation-building project. Whether the withdrawal is blamed on Obama or on the Iraqis – even if it is delayed – conservatives can finally throw off the burden of the neocon nation-building nightmare.

Conservatives have to renounce — firmly and clearly — the Bush administration’s notion of nation-building. Whether Iraq or Afghanistan become democracies are of no import to our goals in this war. State-sponsorship of terrorism — by Iran, Syria and others including Saudi Arabia — is the casus belli. The accurate definition of victory is not democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan: it is the ending of state sponsored terrorism.

Conservatives must make clear their break with the nation-building idea: they should say fire the neocons, and fight the war. Nation-building, as I’ve often written, is a self-imposed quagmire. It enables the enemy to control the pace and direction of the war because progress is limited by success in doing what isn’t necessary to reach the principle goal.

Conservatives have to reject nation-building on two further grounds. First, it is immoral to spend American lives trying to implant our form of democracy anywhere, not only in places where it’s probably unwanted. Second, to help former enemies recover — if they deserve it — requires aid, not establishing a modern version of the British raj. We are conservatives, and conservatives are not imperialists.

A couple of months ago, a very senior White House official bragged to me that we were beating Iran’s surrogates in Iraq. When I asked him how you defeat an enemy by only fighting his proxies, he got a bleak look on his face and said, “That’s hard.” It is. Which is why the first decision that must be made in order to reorient the war to the correct definition of victory is to renounce the nation-building strategy which is an obstacle to victory.

If you don’t fight a war in a manner calculated to win it decisively, you will lose it inevitably. Neither the Bush administration nor the incoming Obama administration have any clue why that is true. Conservatives won’t be able to control the conduct of the war. But they can win the battle of ideas if they stand firm.

The leadership vacuum in the Republican Party can be filled quickly by conservatives if they seize the advantage the lame duck session offers. By opposing more bailouts and demanding the "withdrawal of American forces from Wall Street" this week, conservatives can propel themselves back into control of the Party, and begin the process of rebuilding for 2010 and beyond.

Cartoon by Brett Noel.