Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 17, 2013

As Obama Fetes Erdoğan, Turkey Seizes Opposition Press

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.

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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.

Now, against the backdrop of Obama’s glowing endorsement comes word that a financial body solely consisting of Erdoğan’s appointees has seized one of the last conglomerates which owns independent newspapers and television.

I have a bridge over the Bosphorus to sell anyone who still believes that the reforms that Erdoğan has implemented will push Turkey closer to democracy. Erdoğan cares little about democracy; he wishes domination, personal enrichment, and a complete transformation of Turkish society that is impossible to achieve if anyone can ask questions or expose his actions. That he uses a state visit to the United States as cover for his actions is truly shameful.

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IRS Defenders Are Still Relying on Debunked Claims

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:

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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:

“[W]e saw a big increase in these kind of applications, many of which indicated that they were going to be involved in advocacy work,” Lerner said.

But Todd Young, a Republican congressman from Indiana, pointed out at Friday’s House Ways and Means Committee hearing with former acting IRS commissioner Steve Miller and Treasury Inspector General J. Russell George that this was not the case, according to the very data the IRS provided to the Treasury IG’s office.

There were, he noted, actually fewer applications for tax-exempt status by groups seeking to be recognized as social-welfare organizations that year than the previous one, according to this IRS data. The real surge in applications did not come until 2012 — the year the IRS stopped the practice of treating the Tea Party class of groups differently from others.

Franke-Ruta provides the numbers, and they debunk a poor excuse that never should have been trotted out in the first place. Franke-Ruta also points out that on Wednesday, the Chronicle of Philanthropy was already on the case. Indeed they were. An article by Doug Donovan notes that not only does the narrative about a flood of 501(c)4 applicants fall apart when looking at the data, but an even larger portion of the IRS’s justification for its actions is completely undone by the numbers as well:

Mr. Miller wrote in USA Today on Monday that the IRS began to centralize those applications in 2010 because the division that supervises tax-exempt organizations observed a sharp increase in the number of applications from groups “potentially engaged in political campaign intervention” that were seeking either 501(c)(4) status or designation as a 501(c)(3) charity. He then cites the increase between 2010 and 2012.

The audit shows that 501(c)(3) applications also declined in both 2010 and 2011 from the previous years.

Now, to be fair to liberal commentators, they often unquestioningly accept the false narratives about conservatives pushed by this White House, and so they naturally heard all the fuss Obama was making about foreign-funded fake nonprofits and just assumed he wasn’t making it all up. It turns out he was making it up. But for liberals it was too good to check.

So liberals carried the corrupt IRS’s water. But at least most of those writers didn’t push that narrative explicitly as a defense of the IRS’s actions. Most of the time it was simply qualifying it, putting it in context. So it’s surprising, I suppose, to read Norm Ornstein’s take on the scandal–because he’s happy to defend the IRS.

In a piece titled, you guessed it, “In Defense of the IRS,” Ornstein writes as though he hasn’t read a newspaper or watched the news in a week. We now know, of course, that the IRS targeted conservative groups. That fact has been clearly established. But Ornstein says there’s no way the IRS targeted conservative groups because if they did they would have gone after large groups like American Crossroads. Since they didn’t go after American Crossroads, Ornstein claims, they couldn’t have been targeting conservative groups–even though documentation from the IRS demonstrates without a doubt that that is exactly what they were doing. Ornstein continues:

In the meantime, a slew of other organizations, encouraged by the example of American Crossroads, saw an opening and flooded the agency with applications, leaving staffers to find their own ways to cope– and they did so repeatedly in foolish and destructive ways.

Conservatives “flooded the agency,” so what else was a nebbish IRS bureaucrat to do besides send letters to applicants asking them what they pray about and how they feel about Planned Parenthood? Again, the excuse doesn’t hold even if the “flood” of applicants actually happened. But it appears the entire foundation of this corrupt campaign was false.

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Obama, Not GOP, Should Be Scandal Focus

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.

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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.

The main Democratic talking point this week has been an extension of the same keynote they’ve been sounding for the last three years with mixed success: Republicans are extremists and bent only on obstructing a popular president. The three scandals all point toward a general validation of Republican complaints about Obama’s obsessive belief in big government. But this was discounted by those who wrongly label Tea Partiers as foes of democracy rather than exemplars of how grassroots politics is so supposed to work.

To be fair, the Democratic task of shifting blame to the accusers is easier when Republicans get ahead of the investigations. For Senator Jim Inhofe or Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann to be talking about impeachment is a bad sign for Republicans. In fact, any time Bachmann moves back to center stage from the relative obscurity her poor showing as a presidential candidate had consigned her to is a not a favorable indicator for the GOP.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was right to admit today on NPR that he and other Republican leaders did go too far in 1998 when they impeached Bill Clinton, a move that transformed a president who had disgraced his office into a victim of the GOP. That Gingrich and fellow Republican House leader Bob Livingston were also later proved to be hypocrites when it came to sexual hijinks makes that misjudgment even worse. Gingrich’s advice to his successors to step back and let the administration’s bungling and lies speak for themselves is the sort of sage counsel he could have used when he was speaker.

But while it is fair to point out that Republicans need to be calm and factual as they begin the work of unraveling the administration’s misdeeds and mistakes, it is another thing entirely to frame the current situation as one in which the GOP is in jeopardy, as a feature in Politico did today.

Comparisons with past scandals, whether more serious or less, are almost by definition inexact. But no matter what you think about whether any of Obama’s troubles rank up there with those of his predecessors, the posture of Republicans at the hearings of investigative committees exploring these issues is no different from the Democratic interrogators of GOP figures during Watergate or Iran Contra. If some are grandstanding, that goes with the territory and Democrats who didn’t object to such antics when it was their opponents in the hot seat are in no position to complain when their people are put on the spot.

The only reason the media is treating the behavior of the Republicans as a big story in a week that has been dominated by Obama’s problems is the willingness of many in the media to buy into the Democratic belief that the GOP is a collection of crackpots. That’s essentially been the president’s main argument all along as he posed as the adult in the room in Washington even as he did his best to exacerbate the divisions in the capital and fell asleep at the wheel as his government went off course on a variety of issues.

But no matter how much you don’t like the Republicans, it’s impossible for a fair observer to read the Benghazi emails or White House spokesman Jay Carney’s lies about them and say the problem is GOP outrage about the deceptions. Nor could anyone listen to the arrogance and deceptions on display in outgoing IRS director Steven Miller’s performance today without understanding that his Republican tormentors were merely venting the feelings of most Americans about this rather than showing their extremism.

The GOP needs to be careful not to interfere with Obama’s fumbling and give the media an excuse to revert to their familiar pattern of demonizing the right. But right now the spotlight is on the president and the big government he believes in, not those who are rightly worried about expanding the power of this inefficient and often corrupt leviathan. Changing the subject from that all-too-real drama is an exercise in misdirection that responsible journalists should avoid.

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Gosnell Not as Unique as We Thought

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.

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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 needn’t support the pro-life side of the abortion debate to understand that Gosnell may have changed the nature of the national conversation at least as far as late-term abortions are concerned. Advances in medical science since Roe v. Wade was decided have made it more difficult to act as if a fetus in the sixth, seventh or eighth month is merely a clump of cells rather than a human being who can survive outside the womb. If clinics are performing late-term abortions, including in states like Pennsylvania where they have long been illegal, it is because the health care industry and regulators have largely turned a blind eye to the possibility that Gosnells exist.

If the Houston case proves to be another trip into the nightmare world of the Gosnell case, then it will be a signal that complacence about such abuses must end. As long as we can pretend that Gosnell was a singular monster rather than a product of a culture that considered such infants, whether inside the womb or out of it, as a problem that needed to be fixed by snipping their spines or tearing them to pieces, then we needn’t be haunted by the possibility that more such cases are lurking below the surface of our national consciousness.

We know that women that resort to butchers like Gosnell or others who behave in the same fashion because they are desperate. We also know the children who survive the ordeal of botched abortions have the odds stacked against them, both medically and in terms of what is most likely a life of deprivation. But that is no excuse for refusing to protect them. If we are a civilized society, the thought that there are more Gosnells out there—something that seems more likely than not in the wake of the news about the Houston case—should motivate all of us, no matter where we stand on Roe, to speak out and act to ensure such persons are prevented from killing any more infants.

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Politics, Perceptions, and Optical Illusions

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.

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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.

Now there are different theories as to what explains variations in perception, but what we do know is that different cultures perceive the illustrations in substantially different ways. For example, as Norman explains, Europeans and Americans are much more likely to believe the shaft of one arrow is longer (by as much as 20 percent) than the shaft of another. The San foragers of the Kalahari desert, on the other hand, aren’t susceptible to the illusion; for them, the lines (correctly) look the same length. One possible explanation for this is that the more one lives in a “carpentered world,” one with straight lines, right angles, and square corners, the more likely one is to be fooled.

Jesse Norman writes, “Even humans’ visual perceptions appear to be partly culturally determined. People from other cultures literally see things differently.” Norman goes on to write something Burke understood as well as anyone ever has: “culture matters.”

Now, this doesn’t mean that culture is all that matters. Or that all perceptions are equally valid or equally right. Or that there is no objective truth. Or that there’s not a basic core to human nature or common attitudes that are shared across nearly all cultures.

But there is a useful analogy that can be drawn from this optical illusion for our understanding of political debates. American liberals and conservatives live in the same country, but they often perceive things in fundamentally different ways. We mistakenly believe that those we disagree with politically have the same interpretive lens we do. We see something happening and consider it unfair or unjust. And because we assume others see the same thing we do, we’re agitated, even angered, because they draw different conclusions from ours. That is to say, we assume others see the same injustice we do and therefore ought to react the same way we do. If not, the explanation must be indifference, or worse. To embrace a different view than ours is therefore not just an analytical mistake; it’s a moral failure. Which explains why political debates so often degenerate into ad hominem attacks.

What often happens, in fact, is that we view the same event from alternate angles. The light refracts differently for those on the left, in the middle, and on the right. One person sees the issue of gay marriage as a matter of equality and human dignity; another person sees it as a matter of teleology, the complementarity of the sexes, and the welfare of a vital institution. A person on the right might have viewed Bill Clinton’s actions in the aftermath of his affair with Monica Lewinsky as a crime that deserved impeachment and conviction; a person on the left might have believed it was an example of a right-wing conspiracy run amok which resulted in prosecutorial overreach.

Another concrete example is welfare reform in the mid-1990s. Conservatives favored it because they believed it would help end a pernicious culture of dependency; liberals opposed it because they thought it would do terrible harm to poor children. If as a liberal you assumed conservatives perceived things as you do–if you assumed they knew, deep in their hearts, that millions of children would join the ranks of the homeless if welfare reform were passed into law but still didn’t care–it would be easy to think conservatives were cruel. Easy and unfair. This kind of thing happens on both sides.

Which brings me back to my friend. I’m convinced he’s wrong and that I have the better arguments. But I have no doubt that he’s a person who cares about justice and the good of society. Yet for a host of complicated reasons, we simply view the (political) world in vastly different ways. We’ve had some intense disagreements over the years, but our friendship has never frayed. Why? Because we both accept that we’re seeing the same set of facts but almost instantaneously we begin to interpret them in very different ways. Which leads me to a couple of conclusions.

The first is that I’d be wise to more often–not always, but more often–give the benefit of the doubt to others as I do to my friend. The second is that some of our most important political work is cultural in nature, by which I mean shaping our deepest perceptions and worldviews. Different moral and philosophical presuppositions lead to very different views on public policy matters. We tend to have intense debates about the latter without properly taking into account the former. We might want to try it the other way around, if only to clarify our differences and upgrade our public debates. But of course all of this needs to be done in a responsible way, with a touch of grace and propriety. Otherwise we could all end up sounding like this.

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Bob Woodward on Benghazi

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.

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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.

What we know right now about the lethal attacks on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi and the subsequent cover-up is serious enough. And one cannot help but feel that if the truth is finally revealed, it will reveal even more damaging things about the ethical grounding of the Obama administration. Whether the truth is finally unveiled is an open question. That’s why we have things called investigations. And unfortunately for the president, but fortunately for the truth, they are proceeding.

Stay tuned. 

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Obama’s Defenders: He’s Not Corrupt, Just Dishonest and Incompetent

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.

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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.

As I wrote on Monday, one clear lesson from this is the danger of ever-expanding, unelected, unaccountable bureaucracy at the center of an increasingly powerful central government. That also happens to be the crux of President Obama’s governing strategy. Indeed, the IRS’s reach and power is expanded as part of ObamaCare–itself an expansion of government along demonstrably failed strategic lines. So it’s no surprise that after the IRS systematically targeted conservative and pro-Israel groups in order to eviscerate the First Amendment rights of those who disagreed with President Obama (and at the direction of high-ranking elected Democrats), the IRS official responsible for overseeing tax-exempt groups has since been moved over to run the IRS office responsible for ObamaCare.

Because this critique of big government is so difficult to deny without appearing foolish, many on the left have tried another tack to minimize the scandals. They argue that President Obama is not corrupt, but rather that he is dishonest and incompetent. This was the defense (such as it was) of Obama and Clinton with regard to Benghazi. The Accountability Review Board, which sought to exonerate Clinton as much as possible, noted that the State Department was a complete mess under Clinton. Security requests were ignored, because Clinton didn’t take the time to understand what was going on in Libya. And the chain of command was difficult to discern, leading to total chaos within the department. In other words, Clinton, who seems to be planning a run for the presidency, is a dangerously poor executive with a shallow grasp of geopolitical realities.

And a similar defense has arisen from the left of Obama on the issue. Here is Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post claiming that Benghazi was brought about by incompetence and carelessness. And here is the New York Times editorial board trying to shift the conversation from Obama’s initial failure in Libya to his ongoing failure in Libya. Liberal “defenses” of Obama and Clinton paint a picture of two hopelessly unqualified leaders.

It doesn’t get much better from there. As Pete noted this morning, Obama’s former chief strategist David Axelrod defended his former boss by saying that the government has become so vast and unwieldy that Obama couldn’t possibly know what his own government was doing or why it was doing it. The fact that Democrats can acknowledge this while still planning to make the government larger and less accountable shows the ideological nature of their obsession with expanding the state at the expense of the people.

And Jeffrey Rosen utilizes this explanation for the Obama administration’s seizure of the Associated Press phone records. Obama isn’t Nixon, Rosen argues, nor George W. Bush. According to Rosen he’s more like the maniacally antidemocratic Woodrow Wilson (again, this is a defense of Obama):

Unlike Obama, George W. Bush never ran for president by touting his praise of government transparency and whistleblowing. As a result, while Bush never pretended to be a defender of whistleblowers, he was sensitive, at least in his first term, to avoiding subpoenas that might threaten press freedom…. Obama has no similar self-doubts about his own credentials as a First Amendment advocate: Didn’t he defend the American free speech tradition at the U.N. even as he put pressure on YouTube to reconsider its decision not to remove the Innocence of the Muslims video?

[…]

And that law points to a better historic comparison. Obama’s rediscovery of the 1917 Espionage Act is grimly appropriate, since the president whose behavior on civil liberties he is most directly channeling isn’t, in fact, Richard Nixon or George W. Bush. It’s Woodrow Wilson.

Rosen, who calls this “technocratic arrogance,” is making two separate points here. One point is the inevitability of abuse when the president locks out criticism and empowers unelected bureaucrats to put his worldview into practice. The other point is that Rosen makes Obama out to be a fundamentally dishonest person. Obama gave grand addresses praising free speech while acting to undermine it. Obama offered self-righteous blather about the supposed evils conducted by his predecessors, and therefore he was entitled to expand on those supposed evils.

Conservatives are probably thinking they couldn’t have said it better themselves. And liberals seem determined to save them the trouble.

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Another Nail in the Coffin of the Recess Appointment Power

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).

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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).

But in 2012, President Obama made recess appointments to the board of the National Labor Relations Board when the Senate was in pro forma sessions, meeting every few days for a few minutes. The purpose of these pro forma sessions was precisely to prevent recess appointments. But this caused the D.C. Circuit to take a close look at the recess appointment power and to put great weight on what is usually the most inconsequential word in the English language, the. It ruled that because the Constitution says  “the Recess” not “a Recess,” the president’s power is limited to periods after the final adjournment of the Senate for the year, usually in mid-December.

In April, the White House petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn this ruling. The Court has not yet agreed to take the case, or as they say in SCOTUS-speak, to “grant cert.”

Now, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which sits in Philadelphia, has ruled in another case, agreeing with the D.C. Circuit case on the scope of the recess appointment power and closely following its reasoning.

If the Supreme Court takes the D.C. Circuit case it would probably take this one too and rule definitively. Or it might not grant cert, which would mean these decisions would stand and the recess appointment power would be, except for a few weeks around Christmas time, effectively dead. And all because the Obama administration overreached and tried to gut the Senate’s power to “advise and consent.” In trying to aggrandize power, it has diminished its power. In retrospect at least, that wasn’t too smart.

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Denial Flows Like a River at the IRS

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.

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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 issue of ObamaCare looms large in this controversy because the person who was in charge of the department agency that committed these abuses not only has not been punished but has also been promoted:

Sarah Hall Ingram served as commissioner of the office responsible for tax-exempt organizations between 2009 and 2012. But Ingram has since left that part of the IRS and is now the director of the IRS’ Affordable Care Act office, the IRS confirmed to ABC News today.

Miller, who was scheduled to leave his post in a couple of weeks, was symbolically fired by President Obama in a meaningless gesture this week. His answers showed that he was clearly aware that he is vulnerable to charges of perjury or contempt of Congress for his past failures to honestly speak about the problems when questioned. But the problems went deeper than just a desire to avoid admitting that he and other IRS officials have deceived Congress and the country. His parsing of the word “targeting” showed that the head of the bureaucracy was still in denial about what has gone on there.

The singling out of conservative groups while liberals seeking nonprofit status were quickly approved speaks to a frame of reference about the issue that reeks of political bias. But Miller still seems to think such thinking was just a natural extension of normal procedure that might have gone a bit astray.

We need to know who gave the orders to target conservatives, and I suspect that after Congress and perhaps even Department of Justice investigators are through, we’ll learn the identity of that person or persons. We’ll also see just how far this cancer had spread throughout the culture of the organization, though we already know that the initial story that it was only the work of a few rogue employees in a Cincinnati office is also a lie.

But as the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberly Strassel reminds us today, we know what inspired the whole problem irrespective of which bureaucrat gave the specific order. All the IRS was doing in the course of this scandal was listening to President Obama and his media cheerleaders who had been telling the country for years that the Tea Party and other conservatives were extremists whose illegitimate actions deserved to be placed beyond the pale. The harassment suffered by conservatives by the government’s most intrusive and powerful agency cannot be separated from the calls by the head of that government and his supporters for exactly this sort of prejudicial behavior.

Miller’s evasions and inability to face up to the enormity of this affair are bad enough. So too is the failure throughout the IRS to own up to the problem or to correct it long ago and to promote the person who appears to be among those responsible for the outrages. But the willingness of the IRS to conform its practices to the political opinions of the White House is the root cause of this scandal.  

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Russia Makes a Fool of Kerry (Again)

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.

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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.

Kerry came into office determined to flex his muscles as a diplomat with an ambitious Middle East agenda both in terms of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the civil war in Syria. That his hopes were based in hubris rather than a reasonable assessment of reality almost goes without saying since there is no reason to believe the time is ripe for a diplomatic solution on either front.

But whereas his predecessor Hillary Clinton was known for racking up frequent flyer miles, she rarely put herself in a position to be embarrassed in such a degrading manner as Kerry has done. Just as the Turks stiffed him when he was there in the last month asking them to be helpful with the Palestinians, so, too, the Russians saw no reason to treat the secretary of state with any deference.

There will be those who will argue that Russia’s determination to save its client is one more sign that should warn Americans to avoid further entanglement in the Syrian mess. Doing so would be a mistake, since backing away from Syria in this manner would constitute a crucial victory for Iran. Nor should the United States view the prospect of the Russians being emboldened to continue to make more mischief in the Middle East with equanimity.

With Assad in possession of new missiles that would make it much harder for the West to enforce a no-fly zone or to resupply the rebels the way the Russians and the Iranians are backing up the regime, the immediate prospects for change in Syria are indeed dim. But it is also hard to escape the conclusion that one of the main hindrances to America’s efforts to influence the situation is a secretary of state who is hopelessly out of touch with reality and viewed with contempt by our adversaries. Though Clinton was something of a cipher during her four years at State, it must be admitted that she never flopped as badly as Kerry has done. That may not ruffle Kerry’s seemingly indomitable belief in his own ability, but the consequences of his incompetence for the Syrian people may be considerable.

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David Axelrod, Limited Government Conservative?

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.

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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.

Mr. Axelrod has suddenly discovered the problems associated with a federal government that is so vast that the president cannot possibility be held accountable for what goes wrong underneath him. Barack Obama is president of the United States; he simply shouldn’t be held accountable by the misdeeds of the government of the United States. Funny, I don’t recall Mr. Axelrod making this same argument during the Bush years.

In any event, one of the political effects of these scandals is that Republicans, who until now have been sullen in the aftermath of the 2012 election, will be re-energized. I say that because these scandals go some distance toward confirming some of their worst suspicions about the president and the threat posed by the Nanny State.

To put it another way: If Republicans were animated by the policy overreach of Obama/Big Government in 2010, in the form of the stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act, they may well be energized by the abuse of power by Obama/Big Government in 2014.

Now the 2014 elections are still a long way off, and the full ramifications of these scandals are impossible to know at this stage. But one thing that is being vindicated is the concern conservatives have about the vast size, scope and reach of the federal government. Even David Axelrod is now acknowledging it.

Can a subscription to COMMENTARY be far behind?

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