Sorting Out the Scandals

5 minute read
Joe Klein

Correction Appended: May 16, 2013

All right. everyone take a deep breath. Now exhale. The rush of Obama “scandals” in recent weeks has been, well, breathtaking, and so has the rush to extrapolate, to discern a larger pattern of failure and incompetence in the Obama Administration–indeed, to make a cosmic argument about the inability of government to “organize a two-car funeral,” as Bill Clinton used to say. I have a certain amount of sympathy for that last extrapolation. We may have reached a point where the federal government is so sclerotic and archaic that it needs a total overhaul. But putting Benghazi, the IRS’s Tea Party targeting and the Justice Department’s leak-hunting seizure of Associated Press phone records in the same basket is like comparing a mirage to a dishwasher to a diamond. There is no common thread.

Benghazi is a scam, not a scandal. It began as a political ploy during the 2012 presidential campaign. Republicans tried to pin a cover-up on the President. He’d been saying that al-Qaeda had been largely dismantled on his watch; the attack on the Benghazi consulate and CIA station by a local wannabe militia proved al-Qaeda was still a threat–and the Administration wanted to hide that fact. Except it didn’t, really. The President called the Benghazi tragedy an “act of terror” the day after it happened. Al-Qaeda involvement was acknowledged three days after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice read her famous, cautious, massaged talking points on the Sunday interview shows. As the President said, “Who executes some sort of cover-up … for three days?” The scuffle between the CIA and State over the talking points was unseemly, but bureaucratic knife fights are as old as the Republic. The hyperbolic Republican assessments of the situation–comparing it to Watergate, calling for impeachment–just seem loony.

The Justice Department’s secret seizure of AP phone records is more a policy dispute than a scandal. The AP was given a great story by someone in the government: The CIA had foiled another undie bomber about to blow up a plane. But that story, one surmises, put one or more covert operatives at risk of exposure. That is a very serious crime, and the Justice Department got a secret subpoena to seize the phone records of the AP journalists reporting the story. The tension between freedom and security has been debated vigorously since Sept. 11, 2001. My prejudice–and the prejudice of the Republican Party–has been toward security. The First Amendment isn’t absolute; the government has a top-tier responsibility to protect Americans from terrorist attacks. The Justice Department’s leak hunting may have been excessive, or not. We just don’t know yet. But it’s likely that nothing illegal happened here. Justice was working within the parameters of the law. That’s not a scandal. It’s a dispute over a gray line.

The irs’s targeting of Tea Party groups is, however, an actual full-blown scandal. In fact, it is several scandals. The most obvious one was the lunkheaded effort by midlevel IRS employees to use an ideological shortcut–auditing groups with Tea Party and Patriots in their names–to find out whether they were engaging in political activity, which is illegal for “social welfare” groups under the 501(c)(4) provision of the tax code. But why on earth did they focus on tiny groups when the Karl Rove monstrosity Crossroads GPS was putting up $70 million in thinly veiled political ads? Then there was the behavior of their superiors: Did they tell the White House about this? Why did they lie to the House Ways and Means Committee about it? Was this a real case of what the Republicans are charging on Benghazi–an election-year cover-up?

A less obvious scandal is the question of why we have 501(c)(4)s in the first place. Why should groups promoting “social welfare”–now there’s a category!–get a tax break? And also: How on earth did we get to the point where we have a tax code so complicated that regulation 501 has a subset (c) and a further subset (4)?

It can, and will, be argued that the President is to blame for lousy management. I’ve argued that in the past. Some in the Administration are saying that civil-service rules prevent Obama from firing the midlevel bozos. But what about the higher-ups? Why haven’t the Democrats proposed a full-scale review of civil-service laws, which were concocted by President Chester Alan Arthur 130 years ago, when there was only a fraction of the federal workforce that we have now? Such laws certainly hinder effective governance, which the Democrats are supposedly selling. The failure of Democrats to govern well inevitably leads to a conservative reaction. That reaction will dominate our political life to the exclusion of almost everything else between now and 2014, and perhaps beyond.

The original version of this article stated that the Department of Justice’s leak hunting took place under the authority of the Patriot Act. In fact, it was pursued under preexisting legal authorities.

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