The Obama administration has some problems. The question is, how big are they?
It’s too soon to tell, of course. But there are some aspects of these stories that suggest they’re going to make more-than-medium-sized trouble for Obama.
To start with, while the particulars might be complicated, both stories are easily understandable to people who aren’t politics and news junkies. Here are the nubs: (1) The State Department intentionally obscured the truth about the death of an American ambassador weeks before a presidential election. (2) The IRS intentionally audited people and groups who opposed the president. Those are the take-home, headline versions of the stories and they’re pretty clear-cut.
Second, there’s still reporting to be done on both stories. We don’t know how much is left to be unearthed, but we do know that we haven’t touched bottom yet. How high up in the government did knowledge about the IRS’s activity go? And then why wasn’t it stopped? At the State Department, emails claimed that the “building’s leadership” wanted changes made to the CIA’s talking points memo. What and who, exactly, does that mean?
Not only do we not know the answers to those questions, but also the answers will probably prompt further queries.
Third, both of these failures speak to the same underlying problem: incompetence married to hyper-politicization. President Obama likes to complain about how it’s always everyone else’s fault that he can’t get anything done. He’s always the bipartisan moderate pushing compromise. But eventually people might notice that he is, just as a matter of statistics, the most polarizing president ever—tied with George W. Bush’s 2004-2005 nadir in terms of how he has split the country in two. And after they realize this, they may look at the hyper-politicized manner in which he has conducted his administration and decide that it is not something for which they particularly care.
After all, polarization married to success is one thing. But when it’s paired with incompetence, it’s something else.
This hostility to critique serves as a backdrop to the twin scandals of the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups and the Justice Department’s secret tracking of journalists’ phone calls. An administration in permanent campaign mode and ready to unleash the politics of personal destruction at a moment’s notice now faces a firestorm of questions about the use and abuse of federal power.
There are obviously political implications for these scandals. But we should also take a step back and think of their broader implications for the president’s political and philosophical agendas.
Contemporary progressivism depends upon faith in bureaucracy: to collect data, to manage daily affairs on the local and national levels, and to serve as an impartial arbiter of fairness. Many of the major initiatives of the Obama presidency — from Obamacare to his expansion of executive authority to comprehensive immigration reform — demand this bureaucratic faith.
So every scandal that reveals a bureaucracy’s capacity for corruption deals a methodological wound to this centralizing enterprise. While the president might deride those who fear the subversion of a free republic into a less-than-free state, these sorts of scandals — whatever their outcomes — reveal that such fears are hardly misplaced. After all, we now know that federal tax-collection authorities systematically targeted opponents of the reigning ideology. We now know that federal agents could blithely monitor the phone calls of journalists. Those are not the figments of tea-party paranoia; as far as we can tell, they are facts.
The way it looks at the moment, there are two possible impulses behind these scandals: malice or incompetence. Neither one bears good tidings for bureaucratic progressivism.
The prevailing view in the so-called mainstream media is that “Team Red” is made up of bad people. The Tea Party wasn’t just angry and boisterous, it was “racist.” The National Organization for Marriage isn’t just uncomfortable with a radical change to the institution of marriage; it’s “hateful” and “bigoted.” The Catholic Church doesn’t simply adhere to countercultural views on human sexuality, it’s waging a “war on women.”
That makes it easy to understand how, in Douthat’s words, the abusive IRS employees might have “thought they were just doing their patriotic duty, and giving dangerous extremists the treatment they deserved.”
An unshakable sense of one’s own moral authority makes it easier to rationalize wrongful actions in the interest of preserving tenuous political and cultural authority. What, after all, is a purloined IRS document or a (nonactionable) slander in an editorial by comparison to the horrors of racism or antigay hatred? Of all forms of power, moral power may be the most seductive and corrupting.
“He has, acting personally and through his subordinates and agents, endeavored to . . . cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner.”
— Article II, Section 1, Articles of Impeachment against Richard M. Nixon, adopted by the House Judiciary Committee, July 29, 1974
The burglary occurred in 1972, the climax came in 1974, but 40 years ago this week — May 17, 1973 — the Senate Watergate hearings began exploring the nature of Richard Nixon’s administration. Now the nature of Barack Obama’s administration is being clarified as revelations about IRS targeting of conservative groups merge with myriad Benghazi mendacities.
This administration aggressively hawked the fiction that the Benghazi attack was just an excessively boisterous movie review. Now we are told that a few wayward souls in Cincinnati, with nary a trace of political purpose, targeted for harassment political groups with “tea party” and “patriot” in their titles. The Post has reported that the IRS also targeted groups that “criticized the government and sought to educate Americans about the U.S. Constitution.” Credit the IRS operatives with understanding who and what threatens the current regime. The Post also reports that harassing inquiries have come from other IRS offices, including Washington.
Jay Carney, whose unenviable job is not to explain but to explain away what his employers say, calls the IRS’s behavior “inappropriate.” No, using the salad fork for the entree is inappropriate. Using the Internal Revenue Service for political purposes is a criminal offense.
In a 1941 novella called Logic of Empire, the science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein has one character say to another, “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.” [The story is] really about how a bunch of flawed, self-interested individuals with no particular malice unwittingly conspire (if you’ll indulge the contradiction in terms) in a great evil.
The quote is thus a pithy encapsulation of the theme, and paraphrases of it — most notably “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity” — have entered the lexicon as “Heinlein’s razor.”
Heinlein’s razor is surely on the minds of some who watched the Benghazi hearing in the House on Wednesday, at which America’s former top diplomat in Libya, Gregory Hicks, gave a disturbing insider’s account of the September 11, 2012, attacks, as well as of the parade of mistakes that constituted their prologue and aftermath. So what does Hicks’s testimony, as well as that of Mark Thompson and Eric Nordstrom, respectively senior counterterror and security officials in the State Department, tell us about the mix of incompetence and malfeasance that led to the Benghazi attacks and their aftermath?
We knew already that a number of decisions taken before September 11 made the eventual attack both likelier to occur and likelier to succeed….
Clinton had decided (or allowed, against statute, the decision to be made for her) to leave a substandard security apparatus in place, and indeed had let security be reduced in the months before the attacks, even as security experts protested and reports of violence increased. This happened, according to the results of the Oversight Committee’s investigation, because the administration was in a great rush to “normalize” its presence in Libya, the better to portray it as a foreign-policy success story.
This would appear to be negligence of a particularly gross sort. Since the only other excuse offered by the administration’s defenders in Congress for the baldly inadequate security is budget constraints, and since no one actually involved in the decision-making process seems to take that excuse seriously, it’s hard to read these decisions as “difficult choices” that reasonable people could disagree on. These weren’t “close calls”; they were blown calls. One point here for incompetence. And yet there remains room for conspiracy, or at least the suggestion of it, in the revelation that the preemptive warnings from Nordstrom and others were minimized in the official after-action report on the attack, and that experts such as Thompson were not even consulted.
This brings to mind the cliché about Washington scandals: It’s not the crime that brings you down, but the cover-up. And it’s in the political aftermath of the attacks that we find things we can’t dismiss as mere stupidity….
More insidious, and more nebulous, than this is the administration’s increasingly strained and pathetic effort to blame the deaths of four Americans on a YouTube video. Here Hicks’s testimony is unequivocal and damning. The video “was a non-event in Libya,” he said, and there was no report from Tripoli, either during the attack or after it, that indicated it might have been a “spontaneous” demonstration gone awry, rather than a jihadist attack. This is why Susan Rice’s tour of shame on the Sunday shows “shocked” and “embarrassed” Hicks, who asked Clinton’s Near East deputy why Rice would say such things and was promptly told to discontinue that line of questioning.
Since we still don’t know the administration’s decision-making process on post-Benghazi talking points — in part because the trail of e-mails has not been made public — we can’t say definitively how much forethought there was in the way they misrepresented reality. It is possible that there was no overarching “plan” to lie, no marching orders, no formal cover-up. It could well be that members of the administration just panicked and did whatever they could to avoid “al-Qaeda-backed attack kills Americans” headlines in the middle of a presidential campaign.
Some of the people involved may not have even known they were lying, per se. They might have merely reasoned themselves into believing the video was the cause. Such a belief would certainly soothe the kind of mind that thinks all anti-American Islamic terrorism is “blowback” or “chickens come home to roost.” Or they could have been somewhere between, engaging in classic political bull, exploiting the possibility that the video explanation might be true to distract from the far greater likelihood that it wasn’t.
An administration isn’t a hive mind, it’s a crowd — and in a crisis, frequently a mob. So it’s likely that there was some of all this in the administration’s reaction to Benghazi, or that, à la The Logic of Empire, what started as a number of individuals trying to cover their own rear ends, or Madam Secretary’s, or Candidate Obama’s, morphed into official policy — and a great evil.
A probably apocryphal story is told of the philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell’s wit. When he emerged from the delivery room where his wife had just given birth, a well-wisher asked Russell, “Is it a boy or a girl?” To which Russell replied, “Yes.”
Conservative commentator Ken Gardner borrows a page from Russell in what is perhaps the best 140-character summary of what we’ve learned about Benghazi so far: “Was the Benghazi attack and its aftermath the result of incompetence or a dishonest coverup with media complicity? Yes. It was.”
While almost all liberals and Democrats are still in denial about the implications of the Benghazi scandal, none of them is choosing to defend the IRS officials who targeted Tea Party groups for investigations that would deny them tax-exempt status. Like the White House, the chattering classes are united in decrying the blatantly illegal actions by what we are told were just low-level IRS employees. But the universal condemnation of these acts doesn’t mean that this administration can shrug this story off as easily as that. The IRS investigations aren’t merely a chilling abuse of power. They go straight to the heart of conservative distrust of Barack Obama’s worldview.
Seven days ago, President Obama went to the Ohio State University to give a commencement address during which he heaped scorn on those who oppose his efforts to expand the power of government….
[T]he problem here is not just that a branch of that government has been caught using their almost unlimited power to harass political opponents of the president. It is … that the president and his cheerleaders in the press have spent the last three years demonizing those targeted by the IRS….
As I wrote on Monday:
The fear of tyranny Obama cited isn’t an invention of the Koch brothers or the Tea Party, it can be found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and most of the founders. They worried that our “experiment in self-rule” would fail specifically because of over-reaching on the part of the government or a blind obedience to the vagaries of public opinion. Our Constitution was written by men who understood that the key principle of American democracy must be a system of checks and balances that was designed to frustrate people like Obama who want to shove their big ideas about re-engineering our society and government down the throats of the voters. They placed obstacles in the path of such leaders in the form of representative government institutions that are supposed to go slow and invariably give voice to those who are more interested in holding government accountable than in growing it. Supporting this instinct isn’t cynical, nor is it a function of special interests. It is democracy in its purest and most American form.
What I didn’t know on Monday was that the government headed by the president was about to provide us with an egregious example of exactly why Americans should distrust their government. There is a long and dishonorable tradition of using the IRS to target political opponents of the party in power. Such actions were cited in the articles of impeachment of Richard Nixon and it is well known that Franklin Roosevelt played the same game with impunity against those on his own enemy’s list.
But while Nixon and Roosevelt simply went after specific political foes, what we have seen under Obama is an effort to brand all those who question his philosophy as being somehow beyond the pale of decent society. Under those circumstances why wouldn’t government officials and administrators, whom reports now tell us today knew about these abuses as long ago as 2011 and which may go deeper than initially thought, think nothing of putting the screws to those who believe the president has exceeded his powers?
Obviously President Obama and Hillary Clinton are on trial—not before a court, but in the minds of thoughtful people everywhere. It appears (given the limited evidence we have so far) that they were grossly negligent before Benghazi, criminally incompetent that night of the attack, and then that they aided and abetted a conspiracy to lie about the murders—all for the obvious political reasons and because Obama and Clinton (and nearly all their leftist friends) believe that Americans are stone-stupid. But the real trial deals with other suspects.
It is the Democratic Party that’s on trial today and, to a lesser extent, America’s mainstream media. For Democrats (and especially Democratic senators) it is put-up-or-shut-up time: are they Democrats or Americans first? Obviously their first instinct was to defend the Democratic administration. Republicans would have done the same. But starting with the Hayes story on the Rice propaganda points (and the neo-Soviet process that turned them from truth to lies), and then the Issa hearing Wednesday (and a recent ABC news piece focusing again on the phonied-up talking points), no honest observer can fail to suspect this administration of doing unspeakable things. It is Congress’s duty to find out the truth.
How would Republicans act if a GOP administration were under this sort of cloud? We know exactly how. It was the radically partisan Edward Kennedy who proposed that a senate select committee investigate Watergate—but in February 1973, the Senate voted unanimously to create that committee. Republican Senator Howard Baker was vice chairman, and asked the key question: ”What did the president know and when did he know it?” Which Democratic senator will ask that question today, now that the issue isn’t breaking-and-entering but lying about four murders, including the murder of an American ambassador?
Veronique de Rugy comments: What I find strange is that as consumers, we expect to be getting better and better goods and services at a lower price each year. My cell phone, for instance, is getting smaller and also cheaper while performing at a much higher level than the one I had even five years ago. The same is true of most of the things we consume. Why wouldn’t we expect the same improvement when it comes to the supply of government services? And why are people accepting the fact that, at least when it comes to educational outcomes, we are paying more and more for the same level of services than we did in the 1970s?
In our model, every dollar of government spending has to come from somewhere, which means it is either taxed or borrowed from the private economy. Thus the crucial issue isn’t merely the level of debt, though at some point that can become a problem. The important matter is what that additional debt is buying.
The nearby chart shows U.S. federal debt held by the public as a share of GDP since the beginning of World War II. Debt soared to well above 100% of GDP during the war, but few thought defeating Hitler and Tojo was a bad investment. Once victory was attained, the debt ratio fell rapidly along with government spending. Private growth resumed despite Keynesian predictions of doom at the time as government spending fell, and debt as a share of GDP continued its gradual decline.
The next big debt burst came in the 1980s, as the Reagan Administration sought to break both the Soviets abroad and stagflation at home. The cure was a tax cut plus more defense spending, which in the short term led to higher deficits. Even then the peak Reagan deficit was only 6% of GDP in 1983, compared to President Obama’s first term deficit average of 8.7%.
The key point is that those deficits were buying faster growth and defense goods such as aircraft carriers that would win the Cold War. As rapid economic growth returned, deficits and debt both declined….
Contrast that experience with where we are today. President Obama’s stimulus spree and the mediocre recovery have doubled the debt to an estimated 76.6% of GDP this year. This is despite a record tax increase in January. The Administration now says the debt to GDP ratio will peak in 2014 at 78.2%, but that will be true only if spending growth slows and economic growth is more rapid.
One reason to be more worried about debt now is what we’re borrowing to finance. Spending on wars eventually ends. But today most spending by far goes to social welfare payments and entitlements that are difficult to reduce. Those payments are only going to increase as the baby boomers retire, and as ObamaCare takes effect.
These income transfers spread the wealth but they do nothing to increase the growth of the economy. To the extent that they are financed by higher taxes, they retard growth by taking money that would be invested more productively in the private economy.
Mr. Summers says governments should borrow more now at near-zero interest rates to invest in future growth. But this is what we were told in 2009-2010, when Mr. Summers was in the White House, and the $830 billion stimulus was used to finance not primarily roads or bridges but more unionized teachers, higher transfer payments, and green-energy projects that have since failed. Why will it be different this time?
[T]he cost of regulatory rules in 2012 exceeded the cost of all rules in “the entire first terms of Presidents Bush and Clinton, combined.” (via The Weekly Standard)
I’d summarize the case for the approach we’re proposing in terms borrowed from John Goodman, who has probably argued for this way of thinking longer than anyone. Simply put, people who are not on Medicare or Medicaid today purchase their insurance with money from a combination of three sources: their own pockets, employer funds (which come out of their pay), and a federal tax subsidy. The third of these today offers benefits in an arbitrary way (based on your tax bracket, employer decisions, state and local taxes, and other factors) that in practice helps the rich much more than the middle class, and the combination of the three has to be spent in a horribly distorted insurance system where costs are inflated by (among other things) the absence of transparency and consumer choice. Obamacare would make these problems worse. We propose to make the third source—the subsidy—the same for everyone, and therefore to make it available to people who don’t have it now and put at least catastrophic coverage within the reach of all. And we propose to enable the development of a competitive insurance market in which to purchase coverage. That would actually address the sources of the key problems with today’s system, rather than move even further in the direction of an inefficient and economically irrational health-care system that pulls off the extraordinary feat of being simultaneously open-ended and over-managed.
“ The liberty of the press is the birth-right of Britons, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country. It has been the terror of all bad ministers; for their dark and dangerous designs, or their weakness, inability and duplicity, have thus been detected and shown to the public, generally in too strong and just colours for them long to bear up against the odium of mankind. Can we then be surpriz’d, that so various and infinite arts have been employed at one time entirely to set aside, at another to take off the force, and blunt the edge, of this most sacred weapon, given for the defence of truth and liberty? A wicked and corrupt administration must naturally dread this appeal to the world; and will be for keeping all the means of information equally from the prince, parliament and the people. Every method will then by try’d, and all arts put into practice to check the spirit of knowledge and inquiry. Even the courts of justice have in the most dangerous way, because under sanction of law, been drawn into the dark views of an arbitrary ministry, and to stifle in the birth all infant virtue. ”
John Wilkes, 1752
When one moves beyond all the budget numbers floating around Washington these days, much of the debate over future policy boils down to a question of the size of government. The Left often dismisses this issue as symbolism or rhetoric, but it is much more than that. The question of big government vs. limited government is not an abstraction. How we answer that question has real consequences for real people. For example:
1. Big government is unaffordable….
2. Big government is incompatible with economic growth. Economists debate the exact relationship between the size of government and economic growth, but few argue that government can consume an unlimited proportion of the national economy without its having a significant impact on that economy….
3. Big government doesn’t work. Quickly now, can you name three government programs that work? And if you have to reach back to the GI Bill, you lose.
The further government gets from its core functions, the more it gets involved in areas where it just isn’t qualified to do a very good job. We have 126 separate federal anti-poverty programs, at a cost of $668 billion per year, yet poverty has hardly been dented. We spend more on education every year, but test scores remain stagnant. The stimulus bill spent as much as $540,000 for every job it created. Social Security is a giant pyramid scheme. Medicare and Medicaid are models of inefficiency.
Perhaps worse, government intervention crowds out the private actions of civil society, which are far more effective in addressing people’s needs. Big government doesn’t only make it harder to care for ourselves and our families; it also makes it harder to care for our fellow man.
4. Big government breeds corruption. Corruption is endemic to big government, and it goes far beyond the occasional scandal about congressional bribery, nepotism, or Dominican prostitutes….
5. Big government limits freedom. Perhaps most important, the debate over the size of government is about the ability of people to make decisions for themselves and be responsible for their own lives. Every dollar that big government spends the way it wants is one less dollar that individuals have to spend the way that they want. As Frédéric Bastiat put it in his parable of the broken window: If the shopkeeper with the broken window hadn’t had to pay to replace it, “he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes or added another book to his library.” Or to put it in today’s context, he might have purchased health care, saved for his retirement, or donated to charity. He might have started a business or hired workers. Or he might have spent it entirely on frivolities. Whatever he might have done, he is now deprived of that choice.
Moreover, when government tells us how to save for our retirement, what health insurance to buy, what charities to support, what to eat, or whom we can marry, it forces people to live by the government’s standards rather than their own decisions. It prevents people from pursuing their own goals and objectives, merely because people in government believe that those goals are mistaken. But, as Milton Friedman warned:
Those of us who believe in freedom must believe also in the freedom of individuals to make their own mistakes… . We may argue with him, seek to persuade him that he is wrong, but are we entitled to use coercion to prevent him from doing what he chooses to do? Is there not always the possibility that he is right and we are wrong? Humility is the distinguishing characteristic of the true believer in freedom, arrogance of the paternalist.
This is why the fight over the size of government really matters. Big government leaves us poorer and less prosperous. And it fails to alleviate our social ills. But most significantly, big government denies the unique value and self-worth of every individual.