Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Fans Try to Change the Subject

As the Obama administration’s scandals continue piling up, the president’s defenders are trying, and failing, to change the subject. With regard to the revelations that the IRS targeted President Obama’s critics in the nonprofit sector after Obama publicly harangued those nonprofits and his Democratic allies in Congress encouraged their investigation, Obama’s defenders warned conservatives that they were in danger of “overreaching.”

Having failed at that, the president’s defenders seem to be trying a new tack: use the news about President Obama’s expansion of the surveillance state, involving NSA cyber-snooping and the Justice Department’s unprecedented seizure of the phone records of journalists and their family members, to accuse Republicans of hypocrisy. Didn’t Republicans defend the Bush administration’s antiterror tactics, after all? But here, too, the left is running into some difficulty finding the hypocrites. Our own Max Boot has been clear on his support for the antiterror apparatus under both presidents. The Wall Street Journal has been flooding its op-ed page with editorials–sometimes more than one a day–supporting President Obama on the issue.

Most of the criticism coming from the right, in fact, is either from those who support the surveillance program but knock President Obama for his own hypocrisy–his defense of the NSA is precisely the “false choice” between our values and our security he disingenuously demagogued to gain his current office–or those who never support such surveillance, regardless of the party in power. Libertarian-leaning Justin Amash, a young Republican congressman from Michigan, has been one of the most active congressional critics of the surveillance program. On Twitter last week, he was accused of hypocrisy by a person wondering why Amash wasn’t outraged by NSA activities under Bush. Amash replied that he absolutely was outraged; he was also in college.

It turns out that the hypocrisy the left is looking for is coming from its own side, as would be expected. Two days after Amash tweeted his outrage, Neera Tanden, a former advisor to Obama now heading the liberal Center for American Progress, tweeted her own conflicted opinion about the snooping:


In another tweet, Tanden followed up on the thought by noting that while Obama uses these broad powers, he’s hoping to rein them in for future presidents, so people should stop giving him such a hard time. It’s actually somewhat uncomfortable to watch Obama’s defenders telegraph ahead of time exactly how they’ll reverse their supposed principles as soon as someone they haven’t worked for takes office.

And so the search for Republican hypocrisy to match the left’s continued. Today’s edition of the New York Times contains their latest attempt:

The press — often the target of allegations of liberal bias by conservative media — has found an unlikely ally in right-leaning radio and television hosts who have taken to defending the First Amendment with a fire-and-brimstone zeal. (To drive home his point that anything goes when it comes to free speech, Mr. Beck waved the Koran and a napkin said to be stained with Hitler’s blood.)

The First Amendment has always been a hot-button issue for talk radio, but conservative hosts in particular have focused on freedom of the press after revelations last month that the Justice Department had seized the phone and e-mail records of a Fox News reporter, the Washington correspondent James Rosen, who had included details about a secret United States report on North Korea in a 2009 article published on …

Critics and supporters have noticed the emergence of Fox News, known for its battle cries of liberal bias in other news outlets, as one of the most vocal defenders of those news outlets’ rights.

Swing and a miss. The rest of the Times article tries to make the argument that conservatives are defending the media from Obama’s snooping only because they were also targeted and because they care less about leaks that harm national security than they do about criticizing the Obama administration. Both sides to this accusation are, of course, false.

The Times makes two rather obvious mistakes here in its effort to change the conversation and put conservatives on the spot. The first is that they don’t understand the difference between the roles played by a government official who breaks the law by leaking certain information and the journalist who does nothing wrong by receiving the information. Prosecuting the leaker and the journalist are two very different actions.

The second error is that the Times confuses attacks on the media with attacks on media freedom. Conservatives don’t argue that liberal newspapers don’t have a constitutional right to publish Democratic talking points and try to protect the president rather than cover the news evenhandedly. But that doesn’t mean conservatives don’t wish the media would do their jobs more often and make more of an effort to get the story right–or at least not work so hard to get the story wrong. It’s easy to understand why liberals want to change the subject, but they’re still grasping at straws.

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