Financial Bailout = Patriot Act Redux: Under Cover of Crisis, the Republic is Lost

10/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mr. Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. had made an urgent and unusual evening visit to Capitol Hill, and they were gathered around a conference table in the offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"When you listened to him describe it you gulped," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.

As Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, put it Friday morning on the ABC program "Good Morning America," the congressional leaders were told "that we're literally maybe days away from a complete meltdown of our financial system, with all the implications here at home and globally."

Mr. Schumer added, "History was sort of hanging over it, like this was a moment."
When Mr. Schumer described the meeting as "somber," Mr. Dodd cut in. "Somber doesn't begin to justify the words," he said. "We have never heard language like this."

"What you heard last evening," he added, "is one of those rare moments, certainly rare in my experience here, is Democrats and Republicans deciding we need to work together quickly."

- "Congressional Leaders Stunned by Warnings," The New York Times, September 20, 2008

Sounds familiar, and excuse me while I puke.

Remember the days after 9/11? It was like a bad dream, but some people in the Beltway were wide awake -- Ashcroft and Cheney in particular. With the stench of burning steel and flesh still redolent in the New York air, I watched with horror as ready-made legislation was rolled out; massive proposals for the curtailment of civil liberties and basic human rights, a package that came to be the Patriot Act. A sweepingly unconstitutional melange of odious infringements on the entire liberal tradition dating back to the Magna Carta -- conjured almost mystically from the ashes of the Twin Towers. The infinitessimal detail, the precision of legal language, and the hundreds and hundreds of pages, presented so hot in the tailwinds of the planes that tore the Towers down, made me wonder: was this stuff just siting in Ashcroft or Cheney's desk, waiting for this day?

Did the opposition party, the Democrats, share my concern? And how did the Fourth Estate play its historic role as official jaundiced eye on all encroachments on the liberty of the people?
Well, the New York Times and the rest of the mainstream media got in line to intone how necessary it all was. And the Dems said that this was a historic moment when partisanship must be cast aside, when the fate of the Republic hung in the balance and we would have to sacrifice some of our basic rights to enact the Patriot Act immediately. Lockstep was the dance craze, ditto was the word on the street, glassy were the eyes and slack the jaws of the republic in our moment of truth.

Forgive me if I smell a similar attempt by the Republicans, as the proxy in government for the banking industry, to ram a similarly lopsided, ready-made and offensive prescription down the throats of the American people under the cover of crisis. At the time, wishy-washier-than-thou liberals labored to "explain" to those of us with any perspective that "sometimes you have to sacrifice civil liberties to achieve safety" and that "the worst extremes of the Act wil be repealed as the crisis lifts" and even "his will be a short-term thing." Yeah. Seven years later and the Patriot Act has been renewed and expanded. Our baseline has moved drastically away from the liberal tradition upon which the nation was founded, and well toward the Soviet way.

Beware Republicans bearing solutions to a crisis -- but beware too Democrats and pundits who have neither spine, nor insight, nor political will to stand up for the rest of us and call these solutions what they are.

It's encouraging that the New York Times Op-Ed page isn't quite as wide-eyed this time around. But if Schumer and Dodd's comments are any indicator, this bailout may be the beginning of yet another phase of our unique American blend of socialism for the rich. As bailout packages and the tax code continue to redistribute wealth from the vast working poor and middle classes up the social pyramid to a handful of venal parasites at the top, one wonders: When will the Democrats realize that not only is this ethically and constitutionally wrong, it is a massive political opportunity waiting for some talented leaders to forge it into decades-long electoral gold. Chuck Schumer sure isn't listening. What about you, Barack?