While the scandal surrounding the government seizure of Associated Press records continues to percolate in Washington, such state intrusion on the press would seem positively mild inside Turkey where, today, most journalists assume they are being tapped. It is near impossible to talk politics with Turkish journalists before everyone at the table first takes batteries out of their cell phones. The judiciary has been tapped, as have newspapers.
Erdoğan has stacked previously apolitical bodies with his own party hacks, and transformed technocratic institutions to wield against the press. He has had them, for example, levy fines of billions of dollars to silence some outfits, and seized and sold at auction another. The sole bidder (after others dropped out because of political pressure)? Erdoğan’s son-in-law. Ironically, it was Sabah—the once-opposition paper confiscated by Erdoğan and given to his son-in-law—that President Obama chose to contribute a glowing op-ed to on the occasion of Erdoğan’s visit to Turkey.
One of the strangest and weakest defenses of the IRS’s campaign targeting conservative and pro-Israel nonprofit applicants was that the blatant violation of the constitutional rights of Americans who disagreed with President Obama was the natural reaction of the poor, overworked bureaucrat. We were told that conservatives “swamped” the IRS with nonprofit applications after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision struck down some restrictions on political speech.
This excuse never made much sense, and it certainly didn’t justify what happened: President Obama publicly slammed conservative nonprofits as shady and possibly foreign-funded and complained they had patriotic-sounding names to hide their nefarious purposes; he encouraged extra scrutiny of these groups; Democrats in the Senate then pushed the IRS to target the kinds of groups the president warned about; the IRS did so. Blaming conservatives for applying to participate in the nonprofit sector and thus forcing the IRS to harass and silence them is just as nonsensical as it sounds. But what about the underlying point: were those poor IRS officials flooded with conservative applicants? No, as the Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta points out:
Throughout a long week of scandal, the growing evidence of wrongdoing in the executive branch has buffeted Democrats. Like President Obama, who was slow to realize the danger to his presidency, his supporters were initially put back on their heels by the triple threat posed by the Benghazi investigation, the Justice Department’s seizure of the Associated Press’s phone records and, most damning of all, the Internal Revenue Service’s discriminatory practices. But also like the president, who took to the road today to resume his attempt to blame the interest in these issues on his opponents’ narrow partisanship, liberals are starting to speak out to minimize the importance of the scandals.
The left is working hard to classify Benghazi as a “political circus”; blame the AP for being subjected to an unprecedented phone records grab; or to say the real problem in the IRS affair is that right-wing groups attempt to gain nonprofit status. But while they are having mixed success with those efforts, they are gaining some traction with the notion that the real problem today is not the administration’s incompetence or malfeasance but overreaching on the part of Republicans.
Indeed, Republicans are already second-guessing themselves about how hard to hit the president on the scandals, with liberals using those doubts to help craft a narrative in which the real threat to the republic is an extremist GOP. There are good reasons to fear that Republican hotheads will distract the public from Obama’s troubles but it should be understood that this storyline is essentially bogus. However the president’s opposition plays their hand, any attempt to shift the focus from the administration and the president to those who are attempting to make him accountable for the government’s behavior is a yet another attempt to deceive the public.
Throughout the discussion about the crimes of Kermit Gosnell we were repeatedly assured that the atrocities that took place in his clinic were exceptional and should in no way be imputed to other providers of abortion services. This is a tenet of faith for those seeking to defend abortion rights since they seem to fear that any attention focused on late-term abortions impacts the discussion about the legality of the procedure under any circumstances. But if Gosnell is not quite the outlier that some have tried to argue that he is, then the nation may have to confront the fact that what went on in West Philadelphia isn’t the only place where infants were slaughtered as the result of botched abortions.
Thus, the news today that another such case may be about to surface in Texas may realize the worst fears of both sides in the abortion debate.
As the American Spectator notes (they cite a Houston Chronicle story that is difficult to find on its website), former employees of a Houston clinic are claiming that babies were routinely killed in the same fashion as the ones Gosnell was convicted of murdering: by snipping their spinal cords. Like the testimony in the Philadelphia case, reading this account is not for those with weak stomachs. The details of fully formed infants being mutilated in this manner are horrifying. While those implicated are entitled to a presumption of innocence and we should wait until police complete their investigation, these new hair-raising allegations should cause enforcement officials and health care inspectors, not to mention the rest of us, to wonder just how common such activities really are.
One of the things that has long intrigued me is how people of different political and ideological attitudes can look at the same set of facts and interpret them in entirely different ways.
For example, it’s no secret to readers of this site that I’m a conservative who views a whole range of issues–the size and reach of government, taxes, entitlement programs, education, immigration, health care, abortion, America’s role in world affairs, and so forth–in a particular way. One of my long-time friends, a man who has played a significant role in my Christian faith, is a liberal who disagrees with me on virtually everything having to do with politics. He’s smart, informed, and has integrity. We’ve had good, rich conversations over the years. Yet there’s very little common political ground we share.
We simply look at the same issues, the same events, in a fundamentally different way.
I thought about my friend while reading Jesse Norman’s outstanding biography Edmund Burke: The First Conservative. In the second half of the book, devoted to Burke’s political philosophy, Norman invokes the Muller-Lyer illusion, a benchmark of human visual perception in which two lines of the same length appear to be of different lengths, based on whether the fins of an arrow are facing inward or outward.
The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, America’s greatest living investigative reporter, was on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and said this: “I would not dismiss Benghazi. It’s a very serious matter.” Mr. Woodward recounted his own memories of Richard Nixon’s role in editing Watergate transcripts in order to mislead the public.
The Benghazi scandal is obviously not comparable to Watergate at this stage and may never be. Watergate, after all, involved the president being at the center of a criminal conspiracy. But not every scandal has to be Watergate to be serious; and a scandal need not lead to impeachment to be deeply problematic.
There was a running joke in the fall of 2008 that John McCain should simply re-air Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m. phone call” ad, which highlighted Barack Obama’s lack of experience and meager knowledge of world affairs, and just tack on “I’m John McCain, and I approve this message” at the end of the ad. The point was that thanks to the bitter primary battle between the Clintons and Obama, Democrats had already developed the most effective lines of attack against Obama, and Republicans needed only to nod their heads in agreement.
Something similar is taking place amid the several Obama administration scandals that have surfaced almost simultaneously. (There has been new information on Benghazi, but the issue itself isn’t new; the IRS and AP phone records scandals, in contrast, hit less than a week apart.) Both Democrats and Republicans are raising the prospect that the GOP could get carried away or bungle their response to the scandals–surely a possibility. One way to prevent that, however, would be to simply echo the way Obama’s supporters have tried to defend him.
Last January, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the president can only make recess appointments when the Senate has adjourned sine die, i.e. without setting a date for returning to session. Once it adjourns this way it is out of session until noon on the following January 3, when the 20th Amendment commands that a new session begin. (The president has the power to summon Congress back into session if necessary.)
This was a great restriction on the recess appointment power of the president, which allows the president to make temporary appointments to posts requiring Senate confirmation “during the Recess of the Senate.” Before that ruling, presidents had often made recess appointments while the Senate was in temporary recess, often of only a few weeks. They did this either because the president thought the post needed to be filled immediately (President Eisenhower gave William Brennan a recess appointment to the Supreme Court in 1956 and he was subsequently confirmed by the Senate) or because of obstruction in the Senate that made an up-or-down vote on an appointment impossible (such as George W. Bush’s recess appointment of John Bolton to the U.N. ambassadorship in 2005).
The testimony of Acting Internal Revenue Service Director Steven Miller before the House Ways and Means Committee didn’t provide much in the way of answers about the scandalous targeting of conservative groups by the agency. But it did give us a window into the mindset of the bureaucrats who supervised this outrage. Republican members tried to get Miller to respond to the key question hanging over this entire affair: Who gave the order to target groups with words like “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names and that criticized the way the country was being run? They got no answers, but they did get a refusal on his part to admit that he lied to Congress last year when he claimed no such targeting was going on. He also arrogantly claimed the abuses did not constitute targeting because he asserted that it was not politically motivated.
Miller’s claim that politics didn’t play a role in what was such an obvious case of bias directed solely at conservatives is without credibility. So too is his inability to admit that he didn’t tell the whole truth to Congress in the past about this or to remember who gave the order for the targeting. The same applies to his assertion that the person who supervised this disaster is a great public servant or that the targeting was not illegal.
Add this all together and what you get is a picture of an agency that has so thoroughly absorbed the views of its political masters that it doesn’t even recognize when it has crossed the line into illegal activity. It is also one in which that bias was considered a topic that they didn’t feel impelled to change or to reveal to Congress prior to the last election. Simply putting down this blatantly illegal activity to “foolish mistakes” by a few employees or considering it “horrible customer service,” as if they were discussing the delivery of fast food, shows a mindset that reeks of contempt for the Constitution and for democratic values. With the agency about to play a major role in implementing ObamaCare, the inability of its leader to give a straight answer to questions about any of this bodes ill for the country.
The report this morning on the front page of the New York Times that Russia is sending a new batch of advanced arms to Syria is very bad news for those who hoped international isolation would lead to the fall of Bashar Assad’s regime. Despite constant predictions over the past two years from President Obama and others in the West that it was only a matter of time before this evil dictator would be forced out, Assad is holding his own. The rebels have not only failed to push him out of Damascus but, if recent accounts of the fighting there are true, they have lost ground as the regime has rolled back the tide of unrest all across the country. Though the rebellion may have fractured the country, as a separate front-page story in the Times testifies, with Iran and its Hezbollah auxiliaries doubling down on their backing for Assad on the ground and emboldened by Russia’s diplomatic support as well as its efforts to resupply the regime’s military, it’s hard to see why anyone would think the dictator is going anywhere in the foreseeable future.
But the implications of Russia’s move, coming as it does only a week after Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow to plead for restraint on their part, is a devastating blow to American diplomacy. It’s not just that the Russians are flouting the will of the international community as well as a sticking a finger in the eye of President Obama. Such mischief making is the hallmark of Russian foreign policy under Vladimir Putin since creating the illusion that Moscow is returning to the status of a major world power is integral to his own regime’s legitimacy. But the spectacle of Kerry playing the supplicant to Putin and then being humiliated in this fashion marks a new low for the administration’s prestige. It calls into question not just the direction of the American approach to both Russia and Syria but highlights the secretary’s blind belief in his own diplomatic skill despite abundant evidence to the contrary.
David Axelrod was once Barack Obama’s closest chief political adviser. He now comments for MSNBC, where he trotted out the latest defense of President Obama, who is being buffeted by three unfolding scandals: misleading the public in the aftermath of the lethal assault on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, the seizure of phone records of Associated Press reporters, and the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS.
On the latter, the Axelrod defense goes like this: “There’s so much underneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.”
Now isn’t that convenient.
Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, thankfully, do not have to face the kind of opprobrium that an earlier generation of Vietnam veterans encountered. But there is still a tendency to pathologize vets, to assume that they are victims of a sinister system, innocents who have been sent into battle against their will and forced to pay a high cost.
Take the surge of concern about military suicides. The problem is a real one—the suicide rate is rising in the ranks of the military—but let’s not get carried away. Given the demographics of the military (young white males are one of the population groups most likely to commit suicide) and the easy availability of lethal weapons, one might expect that the suicide rate in the military would at least be higher than in the general population. That’s not the case. As this New York Times article notes: ”In 2002, the military’s suicide rate was 10.3 per 100,000 troops, well below the comparable civilian rate. But today the rates are nearly the same, above 18 per 100,000 people.”
In response to the IRS scandal, voices are rising in defense of the Internal Revenue Service’s need to police the behavior of non-profit 501 (c) groups. Didn’t the IRS need to ensure that groups applying for non-profit status would conduct themselves properly once they had received it? That is the question raised. The answer, actually, is no, not really. The IRS’s enforcement power has to do with misconduct following the granting of tax-exempt status. It should not presume lack of good faith on the part of those applying for the status. What it can do to them, fairly and legally, is revoke the status based on the organization’s behavior after the exemption is granted—thus effectively crippling and destroying it. That is its policing power. It is the threat of losing the status that acts as the deterrent to violating the guidelines and boundaries established by the law. When COMMENTARY was threatened in just this way in 2009 (almost certainly as the result of a political witch hunt the origination of which I do not know) we had no doubt that what the IRS was doing was within the scope of its mandate. We knew that because we were and are highly conscious of the boundaries drawn by the law—that we could not endorse candidates or promote the electoral interests of a political party.
What the IRS was doing in its examination of the applications for tax exemption was nothing less than attempting to use its power to prevent the promotion of ideas someone believed would be injurious. That is the outrage, as is any effort to defend the conduct by saying the IRS was only doing its job.
On Tuesday, I posted here about how Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was being two-faced in his dealings with Benjamin Netanyahu after the latter’s apology for the loss of life in the raid on the Mavi Marmara. The reason for the apology—part of a deal brokered by President Obama—was to allow Turkey and Israel to reconcile and renew their partnership.
Turkey appears to have violated that deal by seeking referral of the case to the International Criminal Court, litigation which Obama and Netanyahu understood Erdoğan would not support once he had his apology. Just as Erdoğan sought plausible deniability when he first invited Hamas to Ankara, telling Western officials that the invitation came from his political party (AKP) and not from the state, so too does the referral to the ICC come from a familiar proxy: a law firm where one principal has been a long-time AKP party activist and the other has been intimately involved in the IHH, the pro-Hamas organization that sponsored the Mavi Marmara. The proxy issue goes farther, of course, as the AKP had provided the ship to the IHH in the first place.
People may recall that in Barack Obama’s June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, the president promised a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world. Mr. Obama’s own background, his eagerness to apologize for America, and willingness to engage the Arab world would usher in an unprecedented era of cooperation.
Mr. Obama said, “We have the power to make the world we seek.” He added:
but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written. The Holy Koran tells us: “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” The Talmud tells us: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.” The Holy Bible tells us: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now that must be our work here on Earth.
I thought about the president’s New Beginning the other day, glancing at the top three items in the “What’s News” section of the Wall Street Journal. And this is what I read:
At a fundraising event earlier this week in New York City, President Obama said this:
What’s blocking us right now is a sort of hyper-partisanship in Washington that I was, frankly, hoping to overcome in 2008. My thinking was when we beat them in 2012 that might break the fever, and it’s not quite broken yet. But I am persistent. And I am staying at it. And I genuinely believe there are Republicans out there who would like to work with us but they’re fearful of their base and they’re concerned about what Rush Limbaugh might say about them…
As a consequence we get the kind of gridlock that makes people cynical about government. My intentions over the next 3 ½ years are to govern. … If there are folks who are more interested in winning elections than they are thinking about the next generation then I want to make sure there are consequences to that.
Mr. Obama’s statement, a variation of what he’s said countless times in the past, is worth examining for what it reveals about him.
Nathan Heller’s new piece, “Laptop U: Has the Future of Higher Education Moved Online?” is a superb introduction to the debate concerning Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
For those of you who have been off the grid, here is some background. In fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig of Stanford University offered a free online course on artificial intelligence. Much to their surprise, the course attracted more than 160,000 students, logging in from 190 different countries. If enthusiasts for MOOCs are right, that course will be remembered as the shot heard ’round the world, the beginning of the MOOC revolution. Indeed, Thrun gave up tenure at Stanford and founded Udacity, a company devoted to producing and disseminating MOOCs, famously declaring that in 50 years’ time, there would be no more than 10 higher education institutions in the world. While even Thrun—perhaps for fear of provoking resistance to his enterprise—has backed off from that prediction, enthusiasm for MOOCS has only grown. Udacity, Coursera, and the Harvard-M.I.T. led Edx have already enrolled millions of students. I have written about MOOCs here.
The most important reason people are excited about MOOCs is that they promise dramatically to decrease the cost of education. It is simply cheaper to offer an online course to 100,000 students than it is to offer a face-to-face course to 30 students. And while something may be lost in this scaling up, something is gained, too. Students can hear from rock star lecturers, learn at their own pace, listen to lectures in short chunks, rather than for an hour and a half at a time, receive almost instant feedback on assignments, and participate in online forums with an enormously diverse group of students. Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University and a co-founder of MRUniversity, ably explains some of the advantages here.
As the Obama administration seems to stagger under the weight of dealing with three scandals at the same time, Republicans who have been frustrated by the president’s seeming golden touch the last four and a half years are obviously gleeful. While not licking their chops at the thought of tearing into the president’s aides about the IRS scandal, the Justice Department’s fishing expedition into the AP’s phone records, or Benghazi, they’re asking a salient question of journalists: What would you do with this material if it was George W. Bush or Dick Cheney who were accused of lying about a terror attack, infringing on the rights of the press, or selectively enforcing the laws to punish political opponents?
The answer is pretty obvious, since the mainstream media did its best to sink Bush under the weight of the blowback from the Iraq war, the fallout from Hurricane Katrina and the financial meltdown, and demonized Cheney to the point where he became a pop culture villain. While liberals will try to argue that Obama’s problems don’t rise to the level of those of Bush, they know that, as John Steele Gordon pointed out earlier today, the accumulation of woes are about to reach critical mass and doom the president to the same kind of dismal second term that virtually all of his predecessors have suffered.
But though anyone who listened to White House spokesman Jay Carney or Attorney General Eric Holder tap dance their way through brutal press conferences today might be forgiven for thinking this presidency is tottering, the administration’s seemingly clueless efforts to deflect blame may be an indication of confidence that this rough patch can be ridden out without serious long-term damage being inflicted on Obama’s ability to govern or his legacy. Though the media is up in arms over these scandals, especially the government’s snooping on the AP, the president seems to think his magic touch with the media hasn’t worn off. Is he right?
Last spring, Washington was stunned by the way the Obama administration shamelessly leaked information about drone strikes and cyber-warfare tactics employed by the U.S. against Iran to leading media outlets. The leaks led to a number of flattering stories that bolstered the president’s pose as a tough military leader, including some that somehow found themselves above the fold on the front page in the Sunday edition of the New York Times. This caused a furor that forced Attorney General Eric Holder to name two special prosecutors to investigate the leaks. At that time I wondered whether this would mean some in the president’s inner circle would be subjected to the same treatment that was doled out to Scooter Libby as part of the bogus Valerie Plame investigation. But nearly a year later we’ve heard nothing about whether the obvious targets of scrutiny, top figures in the Obama White House and the Defense Department, have been ferreted out as the leakers.
Fast-forward to today and we learn that in a separate case involving the leaking of an account of an alleged foiling of a terrorist plot, the DOJ has carried out an unprecedented fishing expedition secretly seizing the phone records of what may turn out to be more than 100 editors and reporters at the Associated Press. Virtually the entire national press corps agrees this is an attempt to intimidate journalists in keeping with the fact that this administration has prosecuted twice as many leaking cases as all of its predecessors combined.
Without learning more about the case in question, it’s impossible to judge just how much of an overreach the DOJ has engaged in here. Attorney General Holder, who held a news conference today only to tell us that he had recused himself from the investigation, didn’t add much to our knowledge other than to say it was serious and lives were endangered. But what we do know is that although this administration thinks nothing of engaging in such high-handed tactics, we’ve yet to see any highly placed member of Obama’s team be called to account for leaks that were clearly intended to puff the president’s reputation.
Last week was one of the worst for Obama in his presidency. This week looks no better. Indeed, it may be a long, hot summer for the White House. As Jonathan has pointed out, the IRS scandal is growing bigger, seemingly by the minute. The Benghazi scandal is continuing to percolate.
Now, the brand-new AP scandal has erupted. This one, because the victims are newsmen, is likely to have a powerful effect on the mainstream media. If the Justice Department has been going after the phone records of AP reporters, what other reporters are having their privacy violated? Even the New York Times, which thought page 11 was just fine for the IRS scandal, put this one on page 1, above the fold. The White House is “dodging and weaving” today according to the Times.
But wait, there’s more, as the TV commercials have it.