Originally published in Official Artur Davis
To no one’s surprise, a few feverish days of the unprecedented—establishment media organizations beating up on Barack Obama’s leadership—are already giving way to a series of smart, nicely reasoned analyses of why the IRS/DOJ/Benghazi revelations are not genuinely scandal-worthy. (See Ezra Klein and Noam Scheiber for some of the best representative samples, and Charles Blow for one of the more in-the-tank ones). And the early revisionists are right, as I acknowledged in my previous posting, that these fiascoes have little in common with the substance of Watergate, and its nest of garden variety obstructions of justice, as well as the obviously critical distinction that Richard Nixon was caught directing those obstructions from his presidential desk, while Obama is by every account a sidelines bystander.
But it’s worth making several rejoinders to the budding “much ado about nothing” narrative. The first is that if the standard for comparison is not the most discredited president in my lifetime, but a random Fortune 500 company, that Obama’s administration struggles mightily with the threshold concept of accountability.
Three examples: (1) how does a Department of Justice with any measure of historical memory sign off on such a sweeping dragnet of reporter phone records, especially with nothing more at stake than ferreting out how the AP learned an obscure detail that compromised no ongoing investigations? Even allowing for the obvious, that Attorney Generals have no business discussing with presidents the content of secret subpoenas, the presidentially selected leadership at DOJ seemed weirdly clueless about the depth of the breach into reportorial work product. In fact, so clueless that it reflected an indifference to the axiom of any investigation that what is on paper will inevitably surface and have to be defended in a public or judicial context.
(2) When the hierarchy of the IRS learned that lower level bureaucrats were mixing political criteria with scrutiny of tax returns, what is it about the culture of this executive branch that kept that information from filtering up to Congress or to more senior officials at the Treasury Department or the White House? Why didn’t evidence of political censorship by tax officials stand out as the kind of thing Obama, or at least his senior staff or his Attorney General, might want to know?
(3) Even if one buys the rationalization that Benghazi was only so much internecine backbiting between two old rivals, the State Department and CIA, that rationalization entirely omits the evidence that a career diplomat was punished for raising internal questions about security in advance of the Libyan attack, as well as about the unofficial chronicle, or “talking points”, regarding what led to the assault. What kind of leadership is oblivious to the immediate fortunes of a reasonably high ranking whistleblower? Also, is it defensible that the White House distanced itself from the details to the point that it permitted the frontrunner to succeed Hillary Clinton at the State Department to offer a public accounting that numerous sources within the government thought wouldn’t hold up?
The emerging argument, which seems to be that the Obama White House was detached enough to rely on the expertise of its department heads to resolve the dilemmas around each event in the current spotlight, would sound strained even if it came during a presidency that was famously disengaged. That is not this White House, which has rolled its own Environmental Protection Agency when it felt like it and is in court justifying its efforts to stack the National Labor Relations Board. More fundamentally, the “we left it to our division heads defense” would not excuse any executive leadership in the public or private sector from the imperative of setting values and standards of conduct for decisions made inside the organization’s own walls, and policing the extent to which those standards survive.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that at a minimum, if you credit its defense, that this government seems more rudderless than could have been imagined eleven days ago. So much so, that poaching on journalist’s phone records, targeting political enemies for potential tax audits, and offering up dubious factual claims about the murder of four Americans all got dismissed as so much background administrative noise. And, of course, it is altogether plausible to draw a bleaker set of conclusions—namely, that there is actually very much an understood code of conduct in Obama’s regime to the effect that ends too brutally justify means, and that the superior motives of Team Obama disqualify criticism as nit-picking or partisan second-guessing.
Meanwhile, Obama’s defenders are glossing over an element of the IRS/phone records controversies that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. The roughly 45 percent of the country that has consistently been hostile to the president is now armed with new corroboration about their fears of intrusive government and constitutional overreach, and it does not take right wing paranoia for them to wonder what other stones are due to be turned over.
The left’s tendency to dismiss this backlash as nothing more consequential than the anger of confirmed Obama haters will make conservatives apoplectic but it ought to serve as something else: a reminder of how much the liberal case for Obama’s effectiveness as president differs from the case in the Democratic primaries for nominating him in the first place, over the more experienced Hillary Clinton. Five or so years ago, the Obama rationale was an unabashed argument that he would transcend conventional political lines and restore some sense of national unity after the country had become strained and polarized after two decades of Clinton/Bush battles. What’s left of that loftiness is a drumbeat that, on second thought, the polarization hasn’t gone anywhere, that Republicans are meaner than ever, and that Obama has no real choice but to drive the knife into the right until it bleeds out.
Perhaps, as James Carville predicts, not one of this fortnight’s disclosures will exist 30 days from now outside the Fox/conservative talk radio universe. But it shouldn’t be because Obama has succeeded in not being Richard Nixon. It ought to matter that while this White House may not have staged a third rate burglary, it is starting to look more and more like the chaos of a third rate, flailing company.