One of the rising stars of the conservative movement, Patrick Ruffini, has sent a shiver down the spines of his colleagues who fear that Republicans in the House and Senate might follow his call to vote against the "Bush-Pelosi Wall Street bailout."
In an analysis on his NextRight.com web site, Ruffini wrote:
"God Himself couldn't have given rank-and-file Republicans a better opportunity to create political space between themselves and the Administration. That's why I want to see 40 Republican 'No' votes in the Senate, and 150+ in the House. If a bailout is to pass, let it be with Democratic votes. Let this be the political establishment (Bush Republicans in the White House + Democrats in Congress) saddling the taxpayers with hundreds of billions in debt (more than the Iraq War, conjured up in a single weekend, and enabled by Pelosi, btw), while principled Republicans say 'No' and go to the country with a stinging indictment of the majority in Congress."
The strategy is reminiscent of Bill Kristol's key December 2, 1993 memorandum calling on Republicans to "'kill' -- not amend -- the Clinton [health care] plan because it presents a real danger to the Republican future: Its passage will give the Democrats a lock on the crucial middle-class vote and revive the reputation of the party."
But there is a big difference: Kristol sought to defeat a Democratic proposal, correctly arguing the political benefit to conservatives of defeating the health care bill would far outweigh the costs to the GOP. Ruffini, in contrast, has proposed an strategy to torpedo legislation designed to pull the country back from the brink of economic catastrophe. The hyperbolic but influential Ruffini is asking Republicans to take a substantial risk in opposing the bill -- on the questionable assumption that Democrats will pass it.
Ruffini's exhortations are not sitting well with some of is fellow-activists.
In a posting on The Weekly Standards web site, "A Time for Grown-ups," Dean Barnett wrote "Patrick Ruffini and I were colleagues at Townhall.com; he's one of the smartest young conservatives on the web. Thus, I found the following blog post he authored utterly dismaying."
Republican and Democratic Senators, Barnett argues, "realized that the economy was teetering on the brink of calamity. They knew that if promised government action didn't soothe Wall Street's panic, then partisan concerns would look very small. Moreover, the senators likely knew that if Wall Street perceived the way out of the financial crisis had become a political football, the panic could easily resume."
The Paulson bailout plan is problematic on a host of fronts, Barnett writes, "But here's the problem - Congress simply can't punt ....Just as there are Republicans crassly calculating how they can leverage the current situation to their political advantage, there are obviously Democrats doing the same (although I'm not aware of any who have been so silly as to say so publicly). Fortunately, the grown-ups in both parties have controlled the situation. If the grown-ups decide this situation has become a political opportunity rather than a legitimate national emergency, we'll all have a problem - 'problem' here being a mild euphemism for an economic disaster."
Similarly, even John Podhoretz, who has taken delight in throwing stink bombs in the past, finds the Ruffini strategy excessively risky, writing on the Commentary web site:
"Everyone who is now talking about the potential horror of this new deal -- we need to slow it down, how can Congress give the administration a $700 billion blank check, etc. -- is kibitzing. By which I mean, they are complaining about it without offering much in the way of alternative options. Nobody thinks a bailout is avoidable. The question is whether there's time to ruminate about it without causing a massive crisis of market confidence that simultaneously kills the credit market off entirely even as it drains liquidity from the world economy."
In a striking display of confidence in what will surely be a Democratic Congress with very possibly a Democratic White House next January, Podhoretz argues, "There is one thing for certain: A piece of legislation, passed now to deal with the crisis, can be cleaned up and revisited in the next Congress, in early February.... There will have been four months to consider the longer-term effects of the bill. That is probably the best to be hoped for, and is, perhaps, the only responsible way to deal with the question of what needs to be done this week."
Ruffini, a 2000 University of Pennsylvania graduate in political science, describes himself as "an online strategist dedicated to helping Republicans and conservatives achieve dominance in a networked era." During the 2006 election, Ruffini was the Republican National Committee's eCampaign director, and in the 2004 election he helped run web operations for the Bush-Cheney campaign.
Ruffini's proposal has begun to echo through the blogosphere, and is producing some counter-strategizing among Democrats.
University of California-Los Angeles public policy professor Mark Kleiman, citing Ruffini, argues on his RealityBasedCommunity blog that "Democrats don't trust the Republicans not to double-cross them by allowing a bailout to pass (thus satisfying the Republicans' paymasters) while mostly voting against 'the Bush-Pelosi bailout' and running as populists." To prevent that, Kleiman suggests that "Harry Reid should announce right now that no bill will reach the Senate floor unless both Presidential candidates have signed on as sponsors."
As the Ruffini strategy gets picked up in the blogosphere, for example by Portfolio and The Hill, its call for 'no' votes by the GOP has already raised the level of distrust between the two parties, each fearful of taking the fall for bad legislation. Simply by entering into the public debate and touching a nerve in a climate where blame shifting is endemic, the young Republican gadfly has increased the odds of both Democrats and Republicans voting 'no' in an attempt to avoid responsibility for whatever unknown dangers lie down the road.