Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
They Said It:
Not only is a democratic people led by its own taste to centralize its government, but the passions of all the men by whom it is governed constantly urge it in the same direction. It may easily be foreseen that almost all the able and ambitious members of a democratic community will labor unceasingly to extend the powers of government, because they all hope at some time or other to wield those powers themselves. It would be a waste of time to attempt to prove to them that extreme centralization may be injurious to the state, since they are centralizing it for their own benefit. Among the public men of democracies, there are hardly any but men of great disinterestedness or extreme mediocrity who seek to oppose the centralization of government; the former are scarce, the latter powerless.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Book II, 1840.
PURSUING PRESIDENTIAL SCANDALS: THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM?
We did our best, last week, to get ahead of the budding Obama scandals. More accurately, we suppose, and more to the point, we did our best to get ahead of the usual Washington spin, the scandal-mongering, if you will. We know how these things go. And we, like any school boy, know that the scandal itself doesn’t always matter as much as the cover-up, and, moreover, that the cover-up is only important if it can be exposed as such, that is if it can be “mongered” successfully.
Now, please don’t get us wrong. We love scandals as much as the next guy – more so even. And, as many of you know, we spent a great portion of the 1990s mongering some of the better and more entertaining scandals in a long time. Still, it strikes us that the mongering today is somewhat misguided. There is, we think, a great deal of confusion with respect to the woes that have, of late, beset the Obama administration. And it strikes us that this confusion may well lead to ineffective or unsuccessful scandal mongering, which is to say that it will result in the misidentification of the real culprits and a misdiagnosis of the scandals’ causes. And this, in turn, will lead, inexorably, to the squandering of the present opportunity, the opportunity turn Team Obama’s screw-ups into a positive for the American people.
Conservatives in particular have spent the past week nearly giddy with the hope that they might finally “get” Obama and thereby end his cruel and oppressive reign. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin declared that “this was arguably the most consequential week of President Obama’s second term, maybe of either [term] . . . The argument for Republican control of the Senate got a whole lot stronger, and the one for Democratic control of the House got a whole lot weaker.” George Will declared that the IRS scandal contained within it “echoes of Watergate.” Even erstwhile Obama-con, the mercurial Peggy Noonan, warned that this was “no ordinary scandal” and suggested that the President was on the verge of finding himself irrevocably stained by his administration’s disgraceful political behavior. To wit:
We are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate. The reputation of the Obama White House has, among conservatives, gone from sketchy to sinister, and, among liberals, from unsatisfying to dangerous. No one likes what they’re seeing. The Justice Department assault on the Associated Press and the ugly politicization of the Internal Revenue Service have left the administration’s credibility deeply, probably irretrievably damaged. They don’t look jerky now, they look dirty. The patina of high-mindedness the president enjoyed is gone.
Something big has shifted. The standing of the administration has changed.
As always it comes down to trust. Do you trust the president’s answers when he’s pressed on an uncomfortable story? Do you trust his people to be sober and fair-minded as they go about their work? Do you trust the IRS and the Justice Department? You do not.
The president, as usual, acts as if all of this is totally unconnected to him. He’s shocked, it’s unacceptable, he’ll get to the bottom of it. He read about it in the papers, just like you.
But he is not unconnected, he is not a bystander. This is his administration. Those are his executive agencies. He runs the IRS and the Justice Department . . .
All of these IRS actions took place in the years leading up to the 2012 election. They constitute the use of governmental power to intrude on the privacy and shackle the political freedom of American citizens. The purpose, obviously, was to overwhelm and intimidate—to kill the opposition, question by question and audit by audit.
It is not even remotely possible that all this was an accident, a mistake.
This is all well and good, we suppose. But then, none of it really means anything at all with respect to Obama himself. None of this ties him directly – or even indirectly – to any of the documented misbehavior.
The emerging Republican/conservative narrative appears to be something along the lines of: “Obama set the tone and fostered a ‘culture of intimidation.’” Maybe that’ll work. Maybe that’ll engage the broader public. We doubt it, though. The polls to date show that most Americans – independents and Democrats in particular – think that the President is telling the truth about the IRS scandal and that his personal liability is quite limited. That could change, of course, but not without further revelations.
If the idea is to tar Obama, then he must be tied to the scandals personally, either through active complicity or passive neglect. And as we wrote in these pages last week, it is both unlikely and unnecessary, from an organizational perspective, for Obama to have been directly or personally involved in any of the scandals currently plaguing his presidency. He wasn’t there. He didn’t do it. He can’t be “got.” It may well be true that he did his best Henry II and wondered aloud, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” But then, it goes without saying the present day is quite different from 1170. And it is just as unlikely that Obama will feel the need to perform a Henry-esque penance, groveling in sack cloth and ashes while being scourged by monks, as it is that the American people will hold him accountable for the actions of the permanent bureaucracy only nominally under his command.
None of this – we repeat, NONE of this – is to say that there is no scandal at all here. There most definitely is. The mainstream press and other Obama defenders will, in time, try very hard to make you believe otherwise: Obama didn’t do it; therefore it’s irrelevant. The problem, as we see it, is that they will be abetted in this task by the Republican establishment. That will prove tragic, we fear.
Our point here is one that can, perhaps, be made a little more forcefully with a couple of examples from recent presidential history. Both Bill Clinton’s scandal-plagued presidency and George W. Bush’s exceptionally difficult second term offer precedents for the current scandalous milieu and both suggest that the emerging Republican narrative is one that will miss the real scandal and miss the real argument that needs to be made on the people’s behalf. Let us explain.
Way back when, almost exactly two decades ago, Bill and Hillary Clinton arrived in Washington as the champions of the “new-new-left” and its myriad causes, but as the champions of feminism, perhaps more than anything else. Hillary was, in some ways, the more successful of the two Clintons. Certainly, she had been the breadwinner. More to the point, she promised not to be the typical “do-nothing” First Lady. As a 1992 story from the Baltimore Sun explained, she had plans, plans that defied “traditional gender roles”:
The wife of Democratic nominee Bill Clinton said in an interview yesterday that, should she and her husband take up residency at the White House next year, she’d like to shape policy related to children and family – not just talk about such issues.
“I don’t think there’s any point in being in public service if you don’t really believe that you want to make a difference to help people,” Mrs. Clinton said yesterday before leaving for a trip to hurricane-torn Florida with her husband . . .
Although she and the Arkansas governor have denied ever speaking of a “co-presidency,” Mrs. Clinton spoke early in the campaign of reasons “we,” or “Bill and I,” were running for office.
She no longer uses those pronouns, and the campaign no longer hints that she might serve in a Cabinet position. But Mrs. Clinton leaves little doubt that she would take an extremely active role in the administration as she has in the campaign.
Today, among her staff of about 18, she has her own issues director and political consultant — highly unusual for a first lady, and more so for the spouse of a candidate — and when she’s on the road, aides call from Little Rock, Ark., to equip her with the latest Commerce Department figures on household income for her speeches and interviews.
As you undoubtedly recall, though, the Billary Clinton presidency didn’t quite work out as expected. Hillary’s foray into health care policy proved disastrous for her professional reputation, for the Democratic Party, and nearly for the Clinton presidency itself. Meanwhile, Bill’s foray into the White House girl’s locker room proved disastrous for Hillary’s personal reputation, and nearly for feminism itself. We put it this way a couple of years back in a story on Bill’s priapic protégé, Anthony Weiner, who, ironically enough, just happens to be the husband of Hillary’s pitiable protégé, Huma Abedin:
Thirteen years ago, when Bill Clinton got caught diddling an intern and then lying about it under oath, he had to call in every favor he had outstanding in order to survive the political storm that followed. And naturally, one of the biggest debtors of all, and therefore one of the biggest favors owed, was on behalf of the so-called feminist movement, which adored the “Big He” not only for bringing the smartest woman in the history of the world into the “co-presidency,” but for ﬁghting diligently against the short, nasty, and brutish Republican revolutionaries who clearly wanted nothing more than to subjugate women, turn back the clocks hundreds of years, and destroy all progress made by women over the previous two centuries. And who, moreover, had a diabolical plan to do just that simply by preventing doctors from jabbing scissors into the skulls of half-born infants. (Clever bastards!)
The “feminists” – and please note that we use the scare quotes advisedly – had spent the previous decade criminalizing everything from dating in the workplace to hanging up pictures of one’s honeymoon in one’s cubicle, all under the notion that they could create a “hostile workplace” for female employees. But when their hero was caught engaged in a grossly inappropriate and “inequitable” relationship with an intern young enough to be his daughter, they sprang to his defense, abandoning what might otherwise be called their “principles,” all because they felt they owed him for his defense of abortion against the angry hordes of reactionaries. Recall, as we noted last week, the voice of a generation of young, leftish women, Time magazine’s political reporter Nina Burleigh, who proudly declared that she would “happily give him [Clinton] [oral sex] just to thank him for keeping abortion legal.”
Then and ever since, we and countless others have had little choice but to laugh at these so-called feminists. Not only did they sell themselves out in attempt to salvage their political inﬂuence, they did so incredibly cheaply. They saved their heart throb, it’s true. But two years later, he was gone.
The Republicans, of course, saw Bill’s sexual escapades as an opportunity to “get” him, to drive him from the presidency, and thereby to establish themselves as the dominant players in Washington. They failed, obviously. And in so doing, they actually made Bill more popular than he had been previously, allowing him to leave Washington as one of the best liked presidents of the 20th century, rather than the sad, craven, drama queen he was.
Worst of all, though, by focusing on Bill and Bill alone, the Republicans failed to expose and debilitate the disingenuous feminism embraced by the contemporary Left. As we said, the so-called feminists tried desperately to sacrifice their credibility to save their hero, but the Republicans were too obsessed with power politics to accept. They could have exposed post-modern feminism for the sham that it is and scored both ideological and political points by pushing a feminism that encompassed more than merely abortion “rights.” But they didn’t. And as a result, the abortion-only feminists lived to fight another day, to play a critical role in the fabrication of the Republican “war on women.” A squandered opportunity, to say the least, one that hurt the GOP, its presidential candidate last fall, and, most importantly, women.
Something similar happened during the Bush presidency as well, albeit without all of the excitement, entertainment, and partial nudity of the Clinton drama. George W. Bush, of course, entered the White House as an opponent of “nation building,” but changed his mind on the matter after the attacks of 9/11. The wars against the terrorist regimes of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein quickly morphed into nation-building exercises on a massive and exceptionally costly scale. All of this was well worth it, though, in the President’s mind, and was indeed the only real option conceivable, as Bush himself argued in his second inaugural address:
We have seen our vulnerability and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder, violence will gather and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the maker of heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government because no one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.
So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.
The Democrats, for their part, spent roughly the last five years of the Bush presidency assailing the man – and his “abettors” – for this policy. They attacked him on all fronts and with every conceivable charge. Bush lied us into war, they cried. He was a war criminal, answerable for countless atrocities. He pursued “wars of choice.” He was personally responsible for every American killed in action. He was a traitor to the American people. He and especially his advisers were looking out for Israel’s interests, not America’s. And so on.
At all times and in all cases, the charges were personal. They were directed at the man (or men) and not at the policy. And predictably, the policy survived. More to the point, the policy has been adopted, almost verbatim, by President Barack Obama – despite the fact that Senator Barack Obama was one of its harshest critics.
We should note here that the Democrats personalized Bush’s troubles for far different reasons than the Republicans did with Clinton. The Republicans, as we said, wanted to punish their nemesis. They were too naïve or stupid to know that there was something greater at stake. The Democrats too wanted to punish their foe, but they wanted to ensure his policy’s survival at the same time, largely because it was their policy to begin with, and they always resented that this compassionate conservative interloper had stolen it from them.
Whatever the motivation, in both cases, the opposition attacked the political player, but left the policy untouched. And it seems to us that Republicans in Washington and conservatives in the media are dead set on doing exactly the same one more time. This is a mistake.
The “scandal” here is not that Barack Obama directed his cronies to do awful things. The scandal is that the American people have allowed themselves to become the vassals of a government so large and with so much power. The scandal is the size and the scope of the government, not the petty fool who ostensibly runs it.
We have little time for – and have given little credit over the years to – the so-called “budget hawks,” those brave men and women of Washington who argue against budget deficits because . . . well . . . just because. They believe that “we should all live within our means,” and that alone is just cause to raise taxes and cut spending. This is a tiresome and economically foolish argument. Budget deficits can be useful tools. Moreover, their disappearance can prompt otherwise rational men and women to loosen the purse strings and spend irrationally, as George W. Bush did at the beginning of this century. And that, we think, is the point: the problem with big government isn’t the cost or the deficits; the problem with big government is big government.
What Republicans in Washington need to realize here is that the current scandals prove the point. Government is too big. It is too powerful. It is, quite literally, out of control. Barack Obama, the government-lovingest president in modern history can’t control the beast, you say, and doesn’t know when it is depriving HIS constituents of their rights as freeborn men and women? Well, then who can control it? How can anyone possibly hope to rein in a beast so mighty and so autonomous?
The answers to these questions are easy, if frightening. And it’s about time that the American people understood that there are costs associated with big government. And these costs, of course, are manifest in the current scandals. “It profits me but little, after all,” Tocqueville wrote, “that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquility of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life.”
In a recent and hopeful post on his Washington Post blog, the leftie journalist Ezra Klein declared that “the scandals are falling apart.” To this end, he quoted the conservative writer Ben Domenech as follows:
The smarter voices on the right are also beginning to counsel caution. “While there’s still more information to be gathered and more investigations to be done, all indications are that these decisions – on the AP, on the IRS, on Benghazi – don’t proceed from [Obama],” wrote Ben Domenech in The Transom, his influential conservative morning newsletter. “The talk of impeachment is absurd. The queries of ‘what did the president know and when did he know it’ will probably end up finding out “’just about nothing, and right around the time everyone else found out.’”
Conveniently, Klein didn’t include the rest of Domenech’s analysis, which reads:
Here’s the hard thing Republicans have to do if they don’t want this crisis to go to waste: they have to ignore their id, the temptation of the sugar high of partisan point-scoring. They must willfully set aside Obama’s presence in the fray, leaving the short term personalized attacks on the table, and go after the much bigger prize. Obama isn’t running for office again. Liberalism is. Making this about him is a short term boost to the pleasure center of the conservative brain. Making this about the inherent falsehood of the progressive project will help conservatism win.
The point is that these scandals cut at the core conceit of Obama’s ideology: the healthy and enduring confidence of big government to be good government. As technological capabilities advance and the scope of government expands, the types of domestic scandals we’re seeing here are only going to increase in frequency and invasiveness, with personal information shared more frequently, easier for even low level bureaucrats to acquire and manipulate. At the same time, Americans are becoming increasingly skeptical and cynical about their public institutions, with their trust in the federal government at historic lows. They distrust the agencies and bureaucrats even as the politicians of our age are investing more and more power in them.
Today, the media, the Obama administration, and David Axelrod are undertaking the task that conservatives could not: illustrating with each passing day that the progressive approach to modern governance and policy is inherently flawed and that vast governments are ripe for abuse. What we are seeing from the IRS and the DOJ is not something new, nor does it represent a perverse approach to benign bureaucracy: it is the inevitable consequence of an approach which puts mechanisms in place and then assumes they will not be used for ill.
Domenech is exactly right. These scandals are about Barack Obama only in that he is the public face of big government. He has failed here, but his failure is intellectual, not legal. He embraced and fostered a view of government that not only is entirely fictional but has been proved so over and over again, often with piles and piles of dead bodies serving as the evidence.
Right now, the only things that have been lost to big government are the civil rights of a fraction of the public – not that that’s anything to sneeze at. In the near future – seven months, to be exact – that will change, as Obama’s beloved big government becomes the biggest player in the health of all Americans.
Republicans have an unequivocal obligation here: they must swallow their pride and their need for immediate gratification and pursue the larger quarry. They let the radical feminists off the hook back when Clinton was president. And their mistake came back to hurt them last November. If they make the same mistake this time, missing the proverbial trees for the forest, their mistake will hurt everybody, for many years to come.
Sadly, we fear this will be the case.
A CORRUPT ATTORNEY GENERAL? OH DEAR!
Just over two decades ago, in February 1991, one of our all-time favorite writers, the inimitable Florence King, wrote one of our all-time favorite descriptions. In a column about misanthropy – one of her most beloved pastimes – Ms. King described the Washington Post’s uber-liberal columnist Richard Cohen as follows:
A beau ideal of the New Man is columnist Richard Cohen, the Washington Post’s resident oh-dear, who is such a bundle of sensitivity that if he had been on the Titanic he would have apologized for damage to the iceberg. Male soul-searching is in and Cohen is its undisputed champ, having searched his own so often that he has become Butterfly Dundee, the man every woman would least like to have with her if she met a mugger.
The “Washington Post’s resident oh-dear.” “Butterfly Dundee.” How could anyone possibly not love Florence King?
As it turns out, though, the object of King’s derision here, the aforementioned “oh-dear,” may have been the only man in the world who, back in December 2008, had the guts to speak the truth about the calamity that would eventually befall this nation. Yes, he may have been an overly sensitive momma’s boy, but he showed a great deal more guts at the beginning of the Obama administration than did most Republicans. And a great deal more sense as well.
Let us explain.
Over the past couple of weeks, it has become undeniably obvious that there is something terribly wrong at the Obama Justice Department. First, it was revealed that the Department spied on the Associated Press, obtaining two months of telephone records of AP writers and editors. Next, it was revealed that the DoJ undertook this largely unprecedented action in a fit of pique, unhappy that the administration had been scooped by the AP in the revelation of a foiled terrorist plot – even though the AP had held the story for five days at the administration’s request, and been given the “all clear” to publish by the CIA.
As an AP spokesman put it: “We did not publish anything until we were assured by high-ranking officials with direct knowledge of the situation, in more than one part of the government, that the national security risk was over and no one was in danger. The only deal was to hold the story until any security risk was resolved.”
Next, of course, we learned that Eric Holder, the Attorney General of the United States, by his own admission under oath, knows almost nothing about anything that has to do with the AP debacle, and even if he did he couldn’t say anything about it because he’s recused himself from the case.
After that, we learned that the AP wasn’t alone; that Justice had also targeted at least two reporters and one producer at Fox News. Finally, we learned, from DoJ’s inspector general, that the Department – in the person of the former U.S. Attorney for Arizona, Dennis Burke – leaked documents to the media with the intention of smearing a “Fast and Furious” whistleblower. Among other things, the IG report found:
Burke’s conduct in disclosing the Dodson memorandum to be inappropriate for a Department employee and wholly unbefitting a U.S. Attorney.
We are referring to OPR [the Office of Professional Responsibility] our finding that Burke violated Department policy in disclosing the Dodson memorandum to a member of the media for a determination of whether Burke’s conduct violated the Rules of Professional Conduct for the state bars in which Burke is a member.
What does any of this have to do with Richard Cohen, you ask? Well, as it turns out, Cohen predicted precisely this – or something very similar – way back in December of 2008, when Eric Holder was still just the Attorney General-designate. Unlike most Republicans in Washington, Cohen believed that the best predictor of future actions was past behavior, and he had the guts to say so. To wit:
Soon after Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, the former president and I had a brief telephone conversation. I had been downright heated about the pardon, a lot angrier than I had ever been about Monica Lewinsky. Clinton implied that I had things historically backward. Long after the Rich pardon had been forgotten, he said, the Lewinsky scandal would remain a vivid memory. That day is yet to come. The Rich pardon is back.
The vehicle for this lingering echo from 2001 is the choice of Eric Holder to be Barack Obama’s attorney general. Holder was Clinton’s deputy attorney general, and he played a significant role in the pardon. When asked by the White House what he thought about a pardon for Rich, Holder replied, “Neutral, leaning towards favorable.” These four words have stalked him since . . .
Holder was not just an integral part of the pardon process, he provided the White House with cover by offering his go-ahead recommendation. No alarm seemed to sound for him. Not only had strings been pulled, but it was rare to pardon a fugitive – someone who had avoided possible conviction by avoiding the inconvenience of a trial. The U.S. attorney’s office in New York – which, Holder had told the White House, would oppose any pardon – was kept ignorant of what was going on. Afterward, it was furious . . .
[T]he pardon cannot be excepted. It suggests that Holder, whatever his other qualifications, could not say no to power . . .
The irony here is that Cohen, for all of his other insights, misses the big point about Eric Holder. Holder’s inability to “say no to power” was not the one mark against him “whatever his other qualifications.” It was, rather, THE one qualification that mattered. It is the trait that won Holder the job.
In his column last week, the Michael Walsh, who has been excellent on the scandal beat, wrote that Holder has become the Obama administration’s designated obfuscator on all scandal-related matters:
From the Fast and Furious scandal, in which federal officials let hundreds of high-powered weapons “walk” into Mexico — where they’ve turned up at multiple crime scenes — to the latest embarrassments, Holder has become the face of the administration’s increasingly blatant corruption, incompetence or both.
The sad thing is that this is hardly a surprise. In fact, it’s anything but. Richard Cohen saw it coming and tried desperately to warn the ruling class about the mistake. There are costs, though, one supposes, in being the town’s resident “oh-dear.”
Back in February of 2009, Holder was approved by Senate as the Attorney General. Almost half of the Senate Republicans – 20 of 42 – voted “Yay.” We would like very much to dismiss this vote on the part of the assenting Republicans as simple Washington CYA, to write it off as an unwillingness to challenge the prevailing politically correctness and thus to vote against the first black man nominated to this cabinet spot.
But we can’t. We know better. We know that most of those who voted yay – guys like Dick Lugar, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham – are (or were) Washington insiders, comfortable in their jobs and unwilling to challenge the ruling class status quo.
The other bit of irony in this is that Holder and his boss are now on the proverbial hot seat in part because of illegal targeting of Tea Party groups. And those Tea Party groups originally emerged from the conservative grass roots in opposition to people like Lugar, McCain, and Graham, specifically because of their coziness with the Washington Democratic establishment, men like Eric Holder. Now Holder is at risk of losing his job. Graham is too, since he is likely to be challenged in a primary by a Tea-Party-approved candidate. And Lugar already lost his job – last spring when he was crushed in the Republican primary by his Tea Party challenger. Richard Mourdock.
As we have noted countless times in these pages, the Tea Party is a fascinating development in American politics. Its views are hardly entirely reliable. And its candidates are even less so. Yet it remains the last best hope for the American country class to break the stranglehold on power held by the ruling class.
If Richard Cohen knew that we were lumping him in with the Tea Party, he’d all but certainly shriek “oh dear!” That notwithstanding, he and the Tea Partiers share a distrust of the Attorney General.
And rightly so.