The news this week out of the White House is that President Obama is planning to pitch a budget to Congress that promises to cut the federal deficit in half by the end of his first term (see here). Today the president meets with 130 advisors as part of a “Fiscal Responsibility” summit, the fruits of which he loudly and publicly predicts will help to offset the unprecedented spending his stimulus represents. This all sounds wonderful on paper, but the facts tell a different story that should greatly concern conservatives.
First, the budget proposal the White House will sell in a televised address to Congress tomorrow will offer substantial cuts in defense spending. It remains to be seen how much of these cuts are a natural result of the winding down of hostilities in Iraq that occurred during the last year of the Bush administration and how much will be additional cuts that accelerate the draw-down in that country beyond what the current consensus deems appropriate. There may also be substantial cuts in other areas that aren’t directly related to the American presence in Iraq. If true, I would hope these latter cuts are judicious and minute, particularly as the president has announced his intention to deploy an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan in an escalation of that conflict. But I will reserve judgment until the full facts are disclosed on Tuesday.
What is of greater concern to me at the moment is that the White House plans to meet its deficit reduction goal by allowing the Bush tax cuts to lapse on January 1, 2011. We have been speaking out ardently regarding this ill-advised decision, which until Saturday had not been publicly and firmly backed by the president, for quite some time (see here, here, here and here). I won’t belabor points previously made, but will simply say that raising taxes on engines of job creation during a recession is a terrible, terrible idea. But even more worrisome is that it has not yet been specified which Bush tax cuts will be allowed to expire. Will it be only for those earning above the $250K that he targeted during his campaign, or will the cut-off be lowered? Regardless, it bodes poorly for the private sector and will assuredly lead to a further market plunge, as investor confidence has plummeted repeatedly in response to Obama’s economic policy announcements.
Finally, the “Fiscal Responsibility” summit is by far and away one of the most offensive farces the president has marched out since taking office. Following the irresponsible spending orgy that his stimulus package represents, he now finds himself tagged as a typical “tax and spend” Democrat. Needing to burnish his fiscal street-cred, he is holding this summit purely for show. His proposed budget is already in the can, as he’s scheduled to bring it before Congress tomorrow, so the gathering will clearly have no effect on it. What further undermines the legitimacy of the summit is the invitation list, which includes union members and advocacy groups, which at least to this conservative are the recipients of some of the most wasteful spending in government.
I amused myself today by imagining the performance of our Congress during the stimulus debate as a stage or film production, each cast member carefully rehearsing their lines and delivering them to the audience to alternating laughs, cheers and tears. But was it a slap-dash, see-how-they-run comedy or a Shakespearean tragedy? I suppose that’s up to the viewer, but I had a laugh imagining it as one of Michael Bay’s special-effects-laden, depth-deprived action/adventure blockbusters, which are typically grotesque amalgamations of both comedy and tragedy (unintentionally, of course). We had an impending disaster (usually a comet, a robot or Nicholas Cage, in this case the economic meltdown) that drove the action, a secret plan by the government to stop it (the stimulus, crafted behind closed doors by Democrats), and an elite strike force (Obama, Pelosi, Reid) intent on putting the plan into action, while of course blowing up lots of buildings, speedboats, helicopters and personal savings accounts. Our villains: the diabolical Wall Street fat cats (perhaps they’re evil, shape-shifting robot aliens?) and their Republican minions out to block the stimulus in order to continue drawing strength by drinking the bountiful tears of the poor and down-trodden. Like all Michael Bay films, however, the clumsy and invariably over-dramatic dialogue on the parts of the protagonists turns the film into farce in the attempt to elicit emotions of fear, suspense and adoration. And like all of his Hollywood blockbusters, it leaves you with a lighter wallet, buyer’s remorse and, when the adrenaline-induced thrills fade away, nothing of value learned.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Let me start by saying that it is my fervent hope that this particular article in the Teaching Conservatism series is entirely superfluous, that what follows is nothing new to the reader, that a clear and accurate understanding of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution can be assumed on the part of all citizens. It is my gnawing fear (borne from careful observation of my peers) that this is not the case, however, that spurs this article’s publication.
The First Amendment concerns what is commonly referred to as our freedom of expression, encompassing our free exercise of religion, speech, publication, peaceable assembly, and petition. As with all ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights, it is an explicit expression of the limitations of Government’s authority over the individual rather than a bestowing of rights upon the people.
Let us begin with free exercise of religion. It was the concern of many of the Founders, particularly Jefferson (who in fact had no involvement in the drafting of the United States Constitution, contrary to common belief), that the new American government might, by establishment of a state-sponsored religion or Church, not only coerce and persecute its own citizens but pervert religion itself for political purposes. The First Amendment was intended to unambiguously protect the right of the citizen to be secure from Government harassment or abuse due to his faith or lack of faith. Religious freedom is further protected in Article VI of the Constitution, which states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” In other words, Government cannot circumvent the First Amendment by packing the legislative, executive or judicial branch with religiously homogenous officials that would amount to de facto rather than de jure religious establishment.
While it is clear from the writings of the Founders that the Constitution was intended to establish a separation of Church and State, debate has nevertheless raged over the years as to what form that separation should take. Do religious displays on Government premises, for instance, represent sponsorship of that particular faith? Do the words “In God We Trust” emblazoned on our currency do the same? There are many who adamantly argue that they do. Conservatives, however, typically understand the Establishment Clause as the official establishment by act of Congress of a state-sponsored religion or Church. More to the point, we feel that any sponsorship of religion by Government that has a compulsory element by which you are forced to exercise a religion against your will represents a clear violation of the separation of Church and State. The words “In God We Trust” do not compel atheists by law to attend church or Muslims to refer to “Allah” by the Christian nomenclature of “God.” Religious displays or signs advocating atheism on Government property likewise do not represent religious establishment, so long as petitioners of all faiths are permitted to have displays should they so choose.
Regarding freedom of speech, over the centuries litigation and legal interpretation have settled with relative clarity most of the grey areas in the language of the amendment; as is always the case, your inalienable rights exist insofar as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. For instance, from the beginning this amendment was understood not to protect libel, slander, perjury, or copyright infringement. More recently, in the Supreme Court case Brandenburg v Ohio (1969), the concept of “imminent lawless action” was established, by which free speech is not protected if it is likely to cause a violation of the law faster than a law officer can reasonably be summoned to the scene. Other recently established limitations exist, such as the Miller test, which is used to censor “obscenity” according to community standards. Beyond this, your freedom of speech is boundless. You are free to openly criticize or praise government, society, individuals, and institutions. You are even free to lie, so long as those lies do not constitute libel, slander, perjury or incite “imminent lawless action.” Freedom of the press goes hand in hand with freedom of speech, in that citizens are at liberty to broadcast their free speech to as wide an audience as cares to listen, be it by print, internet, television, radio or otherwise.
Real conservatives embrace freedom of speech and the press, as it represents the most potent weapon against tyranny in our republic. The power to inform and be informed remains the determinative factor of who truly governs in any society. With this power, however, comes the power to dis-inform. While insidious, this power remains constitutionally protected (within the aforementioned limits), as the People and not Government must remain the final arbiters of what is true and what is not. As Jefferson, the father of our conservative movement said in his first inaugural address, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Consequently, the conservative answer to bias or untruth in the media is refutation through participation in public discourse rather than censorship of the offenders. Hence this blog.
Freedom of speech and the press fascinates me the most, primarily because even the Founders who drafted the First Amendment disagreed upon the extent to which this right was constitutionally protected. In 1798, in the thick of the Quasi War with France, President John Adams and the Federalists in Congress enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts to protect the federal government from “domestic enemies”. The Sedition Act made “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government and its officials illegal. Numerous newspaper editors were jailed and fined for criticizing the president and his administration. Fortunately the Act expired in 1801, before it could be challenged in court (jurists have widely agreed that any such challenge would have carried the day).
Nevertheless, the debate over the enforcement of “truth and accountability” in the media astoundingly still rages just as it did then. The focus of modern ire is talk radio and internet blogging. The Fairness Doctrine, which was an FCC policy from 1949-1985, compelled radio broadcasters to present opposing viewpoints to their own on their programs. There is talk on the part of many Democrats (including former President Clinton) of reinstating this policy by act of Congress. While the Fairness Doctrine was upheld by the Supreme Court decision Red Lion Broadcasting Co v FCC (1969), conservatives typically feel that compelling speech on the part of private citizens or interests is just as unconstitutional as restraining or punishing speech. Especially with the diversity of modern media, opposing viewpoints are ever-present and freely articulated should citizens seek them. Moreover, placing the arbitration of what is true or not in the hands of Government rather than the People is anathema to the intent of United States Constitution.
Finally, freedom of peaceable assembly and petition are the second-most potent weapons (next to speech/press) in the arsenal of the citizenry. They permit American citizens to demonstrate by show of numbers the support for an idea or communicate ideas freely and directly to large groups of their fellow citizens. Freedom of petition similarly allows citizenry to demonstrate numerical support for a grievance to Government. Without the freedoms of peaceable assembly and petition, Government may dismiss any opposition movement as fringe discontents who constitute a minority, just as tin-pot dictators continue to do all over the world today. Furthermore, just as with the freedoms of speech and press, assembly and petition permit opposition to Government to organize rather than be fragmented, disparate and ultimately powerless.
Real conservatives celebrate the First Amendment, just as they celebrate the Constitution as a whole, without reservation. We are not fundamentalists clamoring for state-established religion. We do not advocate the muzzling of political opposition or dissent. Indeed, in recent years we have become the voice of opposition and dissent. We insist upon the freedom to organize, assemble and demonstrate our strength to our Government, just as we insist that these freedoms be accorded to our political opponents. Our movement is predicated on the free exchange of rational ideas.
Anyone who saw President Obama's town hall meeting in Ft. Lauderdale knows what I mean when I say there were some supporters in attendance that were downright creepy in their fanatical devotion. Case in point, Mr. Julio Osegueda. The event itself seemed more like the line to see Santa at Macy's than an actual town hall; numerous individuals came forward to ask the president for... stuff. One homeless woman, Henrietta Hughes, asked for a house and a new car. Julio Osegueda asked for better health care benefits at his job at McDonalds. When grovelling supplicants come before the President of the United States asking him to favor them with gifts, you know the country has taken a wrong turn somewhere.
Jia Lynn Yang, reporter for Fortune magazine, addressed this morning a discussion which has gained more and more footing in the last few years: the academic critique of FDR’s New Deal, and its actual impact on our economy during the Great Depression. During the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt instituted a number of “shot in the dark” stimulus programs aimed at treating various symptoms of the country’s economic collapse. Many modern economists have posited that FDR overreacted, and the recession following the boom of the 1920s would never have escalated to a depression were it not for The New Deal, a concept Yang adroitly points out is the antithesis of what we were taught in grade school history classes.
In The truth about stimulus and the Depression, Yang does a good job of summarizing one major critique of The New Deal: Roosevelt’s treatment of labor and business relations. The article presents some good statistics, but doesn’t speak to them with the seriousness that numbers of their magnitude might otherwise warrant. She establishes government policies restricting the flexibility of labor markets resulted in wholesale prices that rose 23% in two years (a very large number), but manages to avoid using the word inflation.
On the reverse, she cites FDR’s Civil Works Administration as employing 3.6 million people and demonstrating a possible correlation to increased spending and decreased mortality rates. What goes unsaid is the fact that these were not permanent jobs (the program ran for less than a year), and that it cost the government more than twice its initial price tag (over $1 billion dollars in the end, which is a lot in 1930s dollars).
One major factor that is not even addressed is Milton Friedman’s critique of the decade’s monetary policy, which demonstrated an abysmal lack of understanding by political leaders of the day (a good synopsis of the depression from Friedman’s view can be found here). A related but varying hypothesis put forth by the Austrian School attributes some of the blame to malinvestment, or government action redirecting resources in non-rational and unproductive ways (though few currently subscribe to this view).
So what’s the moral here?
Yang asks that very question, and comes to the conclusion that because some of the New Deal’s programs managed to stem some of the economies bleeding, we should look past the fact that other programs turned what was otherwise a harsh but treatable wound into a gross trauma in the first place. I must argue a different moral. The Great Depression and the New Deal provide us a perfect example of why throwing a trillion untargeted dollars at a problem is a terrible idea. When government becomes involved, history clearly shows its capacity to do wrong vastly outweigh its capacity to help. And if politicians must do something, as Arlen Spector (R-PA) claimed as the reason he had to vote in favor of our stimulus package, they should not be putting haste before prudence to get the bill passed “as fast as humanly possible” (quote from President Barrack Obama). Any action should be deliberate and targeted at causes, not symptoms. We are in a recession right now – and we have only ourselves to blame if it becomes more than that.
Idealism has taken a bit of a beating lately in American politics, particularly in discussion surrounding the stimulus package and economic recovery. According to many in the media and the new administration, for the sake of our nation we must enter a post-ideological era, where good policy should be based upon whether it works rather than whether it’s good for America’s long-term health, or even legal. Some in the conservative community have even echoed or applauded these sentiments, putting aside ideology in deference to “getting things done.” I am not one of those conservatives.
I don’t know if many people have stopped to consider what a post-ideological era really means. Results-based policy covers a whole manner of sins. For instance, the PATRIOT Act works; it catches terrorists and provides critical intelligence. It’s also an infringement upon the individual liberty of American citizens. There are lots of things that work in the short-term as well that are doomed to long-term failure, such as social security. The efficacy of a proposed policy must always be tempered with whether it is constitutional. Hence conservatism.
Times of crisis, when emotions run high, are when conservatism is needed most. These are the times when politicians, well-meaning or otherwise, attempt to seize more power. In the infancy of our nation, Jefferson’s Republicans were the voice of opposition to the Federalist government when war with France seemed inevitable. The Federalists, in an attempt to end partisanship for the sake of national unity (i.e. – create a post-ideological era), passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made criticism of the government illegal. I truly believe a similar effort is currently underway, with liberal rhetoric increasingly aimed at stifling opposition. I am deeply concerned and annoyed, for instance, that the president has unilaterally declared the debate on the stimulus over, calling for passage now. Even more disturbing is the renewed talk of the Fairness Doctrine, a policy that represents the greatest infringement upon free speech since the Alien and Sedition Acts.
National unity is essential, but as Americans we have to sack up and remember that open debate and civil opposition aren’t going to destroy us. Politicians have been advocating for a post-partisan America since the nation began, and in nearly every case these politicians have been members of the governing majority. Consequently their concept of post-partisanship is typically just one-party rule.
As conservatives, we must brace ourselves for what is surely to come. The next stop for the Democrats in government will be universal healthcare which, once accomplished, will never be undone. They will hold hearings on the Fairness Doctrine in which talk radio hosts will be hauled before committees and forced to explain and justify their free political speech. They will eventually raise taxes on corporations in an attempt to stave off some of the financial ruin that will eventually result from their spending-spree. Our children will foot the bill for a whole new array of entitlement programs that will pick their pockets. We have to stand against this. No more illusions, folks. The president isn’t interested in middle ground unless there is political gain. We must doubt his intentions. Get ready to voice some loud opposition…
According to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, every month we go without passing the stimulus package, 500 million Americans lose their jobs. Just FYI, the population of the United States is roughly 304 million. You're trying too hard, Madame Speaker. Just sit out a few rounds, please.
Watch her atually say this here.
Thanks to Luscus for the video.
Ah, populism. It can sweep you into the White House with popularity unseen in ages… and it can destroy you when you try to appoint your limousine liberal hack friends when you get there. When multiple, high-profile political appointments you make are beset by serious tax problems, one of which involves a limousine driver and a defense of “but I’d gotten so used to being driven around…”, and then a safety net of the “clubby way” Senators treat one of their own (as this article points out) that would ensure confirmation, you're on thin ice. And for President Obama, the ice just broke.
This Daschle business ended very badly, and it just goes to show that when you play to the crowd’s financial suffering, promise sweeping reform and then turn around and appoint tax cheats and lobbyists that you stand by unwaveringly (aka business as usual in Washington), you get burned. This hurts the president quite a bit politically, and by the admission of some of his supporters in the Senate it hurts his Universal Healthcare momentum as well. It could also make any attempt on his part to raise taxes on middle class Americans, should it come to that, even more difficult. I'm not going to pretend like these setbacks upset or disappoint me. But I imagine his wounds will heal quickly, particularly after his mea culpa on NBC, a move that his unapologetic predecessor would never have made.
Congratulations to Michael Steele, the newly elected Chairman of the Republican National Committee. As a young conservative, I have to admit that I was pulling for him. While I still affiliate myself with neither the Republican nor Democratic Party, I do believe that the Republicans are starting to get the message of the 2006 and 2008 elections and get right on conservatism (no pun intended). And by that I mean real conservatism of the sort espoused by this and other blogs (see "Blogs of Note" section on sidebar), not “compassionate” or neo-conservatism (for the distinction, see here and here).
The Children of the Revolution first recognized Steele’s potential briefly in an article entitled The Bizarrobamas. Mr. Steele comes from humble, self-made beginnings and started life as a Democrat. As a convert to conservatism, he brings a fresh, intelligent style to his discussions of what being conservative really means. Furthermore, since his ascendance to leadership first of GOPAC and now the RNC, he has been a champion of teaching conservative principles (something that we at COTR are very big on) and recruiting young conservatives to run for local elective offices across the country. He has distanced himself from neoconservatives by opposing a federal amendment banning gay marriage, urging the issue to be left to the states and calling it a “low priority.” He also was among the first to call for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation as Secretary of Defense, saying he “wouldn’t be my Secretary of Defense.” He has repeatedly urged spending restraint and tax reform that makes tax relief permanent and simplifies the tax code.
However, he has some of the defects of Republican Party loyalty. He took a hawkish stance on Iraq and declared that he would have supported military action even if there were no weapons of mass destruction. He is also an ardent supporter of the War on Drugs. He holds some moderate views as well, and is supporter of affirmative action and upholding Roe v Wade on stare decisis grounds (which many conservatives typically oppose as bad law, holding that abortion should be left up to the states), though he is personally opposed to abortion.
Nevertheless, taken on the whole the election of Michael Steele as RNC Chairman adds up to a net positive on the part of conservatism and this blog in particular. We have ardently called for new, younger Republican leadership following the spending glut of the Bush years, among other things. Mr. Steele has led that particular charge since before it was popular in the Party. What remains to be seen is if he’ll change the Party or the Party will change him. I am aware of the possibility that his election came at a cost to his ideals, but hope that he was chosen for his character and beliefs rather than any particular demographic appeal he may have.
We’ll monitor his progress critically and closely…