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The sudden deluge of scandal which dominates the discussion around President Obama’s administration at the moment has handed a golden opportunity to Republicans. Yet if they aren’t careful, they’ll squander this opening completely by allowing their intense dislike of the president to cloud their judgment, missing the broader political lessons for the sake of personal point scoring.
Personal scandals are personal. They are tied to defects and appetites, as in the case of Bill Clinton, John Edwards, John Ensign, and a host of others. With rare exceptions, such scandals begin and end with that individual, not with their broader political philosophy. The American people intrinsically understand that, and they distinguish naturally between failures of an individual variety and of a party as a whole.
The scandals we are talking about in Washington today are not tied to the individual of Barack Obama. While there’s still more information to be gathered and more investigations to be done, all indications are that these decisions – on the AP, on the IRS, on Benghazi – don’t proceed from him. The talk of impeachment is absurd. The queries of “what did the president know and when did he know it” will probably end up finding out “just about nothing, and right around the time everyone else found out.”
Marco Rubio’s remarks the other day illustrate the right and the wrong way to talk about these scandals. Decrying Chicago politics and a fractured Washington, the failure of hope and change, is fine and good. But there’s a limit to it, and if done poorly, the attacks imply that the problem here isn’t the statism, it’s the guy at the head of it. In other words, that if Obama was really the ethically clean reform-minded progressive technocrat he styled himself as when running for office, things would be just fine. In effect, this partisan morality play approach allows the Democratic Party an escape route which they shouldn’t have: just firing a bunch of lower level people.
Here’s the hard thing Republicans have to do if they don’t want this crisis to go to waste: they have to ignore their id, the temptation of the sugar high of partisan point-scoring. They must willfully set aside Obama’s presence in the fray, leaving the short term personalized attacks on the table, and go after the much bigger prize. Obama isn’t running for office again. Liberalism is. Making this about him is a short term boost to the pleasure center of the conservative brain. Making this about the inherent falsehood of the progressive project will help conservatism win.
The point is that these scandals cut at the core conceit of Obama’s ideology: the healthy and enduring confidence of big government to be good government. As technological capabilities advance and the scope of government expands, the types of domestic scandals we’re seeing here are only going to increase in frequency and invasiveness, with personal information shared more frequently, easier for even low level bureaucrats to acquire and manipulate. At the same time, Americans are becoming increasingly skeptical and cynical about their public institutions, with their trust in the federal government at historic lows. They distrust the agencies and bureaucrats even as the politicians of our age are investing more and more power in them.
Today, the media, the Obama administration, and David Axelrod are undertaking the task that conservatives could not: illustrating with each passing day that the progressive approach to modern governance and policy is inherently flawed and that vast governments are ripe for abuse. What we are seeing from the IRS and the DOJ is not something new, nor does it represent a perverse approach to benign bureaucracy: it is the inevitable consequence of an approach which puts mechanisms in place and then assumes they will not be used for ill. You should expect government to go as far as it can, whenever it can, in any ways that it can, toward the full exploitation of the power made available to it. Expecting government to behave otherwise is to expect the scorpion not to sting the frog.
The progressive answer to this is more rules and regulators, more agencies and safeguards and accountability projects. Republicans should recognize this intervention for the ridiculousness it is – creating more federal entities to watch over federal entities – and focus their arguments instead on the only solution which will actually work: removing power from the federal government and returning it to the states or the people. The only way to ensure that government doesn’t abuse a power is to make sure it doesn’t have this power in the first place.
When this period of scandal draws to a close, if the idea still survives that a more competent and ethical president would be able to effectively govern a $4 trillion bureaucracy, it will be a sign Republicans have failed. They can succeed by ignoring the tempting bait of making this about the president they despise, and focusing instead on the false philosophy of expansive government which represents the true danger to the American experiment. Doing so will require them to go against their own short-term viewpoint, so prevalent in recent years, and look instead to the long game.
[First posted at Real Clear Politics]