The Daily Debate - 5/17/2013

By Robert Tracinski

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May 17, 2013

1. Why Big Government Can't Win

2. Social Welfare

3. Around the RealClear Universe


1. Why Big Government Can't Win

Ruth Marcus surveys the Obama administration's "trifecta" of scandals: the IRS, Benghazi, and the AP phone record seizure, and dismisses the result as underwhelming. On the IRS scandal, for example, she concludes that "the IG report offers evidence that this episode is more reflective of an ignorant, recalcitrant and mismanaged bureaucracy than of a sinister political thumb on the tax scales."

But she's missing the big picture. Advocates of small government don't need to find a sinister conspiracy, because this isn't just personal. It isn't just about the president. It is about his favorite cause, big government. To make the case for small government, all we need is to show that big government is an "ignorant, recalcitrant, and mismanaged bureaucracy." That will do very nicely, thank you.

Glenn Reynolds explains how an event at the start of the week magnifies the impact of these revelations.

"The week started out with President Obama disparaging those who worried about tyranny as conspiracy theorists, and telling college students to reject them:
"'Still, you'll hear voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that's the root of all our problems, even as they do their best to gum up the works; or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule is just a sham with which we can't be trusted.'
"The rest of the week consisted of scandal after scandal, suggesting that maybe our government is...a sham with which Obama, at least, can't be trusted."

George Will puts it more precisely.

"The scandals are interlocking and overlapping in ways that drain his authority. Everything he advocates requires Americans to lavish on government something that his administration, and big government generally, undermines: trust....

"The agenda always is: Concentrate more power in Washington, more Washington power in the executive branch and more executive power in agencies run by experts. Then trust the experts to be disinterested and prudent with their myriad intrusions into, and minute regulations of, Americans' lives. Obama's presidency may yet be, on balance, a net plus for the public good if it shatters Americans' trust in the regulatory state's motives."

Will also argues that the cavalcade of scandals isn't over.

"Obama's supposed 'trifecta' of scandals—Benghazi, the IRS and the seizure of Associated Press phone records—neglects some. A fourth scandal is power being wielded by executive branch officials (at the National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) illegally installed in office by presidential recess appointments made when the Senate was not in recess.

"A fifth might be from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who solicited funds from corporations in industries that HHS regulates to replace some that Congress refused to appropriate. The money is to be spent by nonprofit¬—which does not mean nonpolitical—entities. The funds are to educate Americans about, which might mean (consider the administration's Benghazi and IRS behaviors) propagandize in favor of, Obamacare and to enroll people in its provisions."

(Incidentally, connect this to my comments about the Don Draper School of Health Care Reform and you will realize the crucial role the administration is hoping this Madison Avenue magic will play in keeping ObamaCare from collapsing.)

Mona Charen explains why these scandals still bite even if President Obama had nothing to do with them.

"It's plausible to grant that Obama himself did not know that IRS agents were targeting tea party groups, Jews and other—one almost wants to write 'enemies of the state'—for audits, harassment and delay. If Obama understood the conservative critique of big government even a little, he would know that his lack of knowledge is expected. In fact, it's part of the problem. As David Axelrod put it, the government is just 'too vast' for the president to control. Who would have thought?"

She goes on to explain how ObamaCare creates a whole new set of sprawling, unaccountable executive-branch agencies for the president not to control. Then she concludes:

"At his Thursday press conference, Obama promised that if 'there's a problem in government, we'll fix it.' But his overweening signature legislation guarantees that power will be abused. Shielding government agencies from judicial and congressional review is an open invitation to the kind of misuse a wiser person would guard against. Wiser men did. They created our constitution, which Obama and his progressive allies flout."

If you think this is exaggerated, reflect that the lady who was in charge of targeting Tea Party groups at the IRS was promoted to be in charge of implementing ObamaCare.

"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."

Really, folks on the right couldn't have written this narrative any better.

Speaking of which, The Politico notes that an administration that lives by the narrative is in danger of dying by it.

"No contemporary American politician has benefited more from the power of good storytelling than Barack Obama. He vaulted from obscurity to the presidency on the power of narrative—invoking his biography and personal values to make a larger point about how he would lead the nation.

"So presumably no one understands more vividly than Obama and his close aides just how toxic and potentially paralyzing his situation has become this spring, as four distinct ethical and policy controversies have simultaneously converged.

"Obama's critics now have a narrative—a way of connecting four discrete episodes to a larger point about this president's leadership style and values.... And for the first time, this anti-Obama storyline is being presented in a way that might seem reasonable to people who are not already rabid anti-Obama partisans."

While Politico describes this as an anti-Obama narrative, they recognize that it is not just personal.

"The narrative is ideological. For five years, this president has been making the case that a growing and activist government has good intentions and can carry these intentions out with competence. Conservatives have warned that government is dangerous, and even good intentions get bungled in the execution. In different ways, the IRS uproar, the Justice Department leak investigations, the Benghazi tragedy and the misleading attempts to explain it, and the growing problems with implementation of health care reform all bolster the conservative worldview."

This "narrative" is catching on, not just on the far right, but among centrists, like the right-leaning "moderate" David Brooks.

"As a surgeon abhors sloppiness, the best government workers instinctively abhor any hint of domination. Knowing how power is liable to corrupt them, they tend to shrink back at any hint of their own overreach and desire for control.

"But we don't exactly see this attitude in the big stories about government today, do we?...

"I generally support the little behavioral nudges that Cass Sunstein describes in his outstanding book Simpler—the subtle policy shifts that induce people to save more, or eat healthier. I'd trust somebody with a minimalist disposition like Sunstein to implement these policies. But I wouldn't necessarily trust the people at the IRS or Justice Department to implement them. They'd take a nudge and expand it into a shove."

Is it just me, or does anyone else detect a puzzling naiveté in this argument? David Brooks has spent decades observing government and politics, most of that time at least nominally within the conservative movement, with its suspicion of government—and he is only just now realizing that benevolent social engineers who want to give us a gentle "nudge" can actually become arrogant paternalists who abuse their power. What, did he miss out on Mayor Bloomberg's entire tenure in office?

The key to grasping the importance of these scandals is to keep the focus ideological rather than personal. Ben Domenech—in one of those pieces that irritates me because I didn't write it first—counsels Republicans about how hard this is going to be.

"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."

If they keep the focus on this ideological level, advocates of limited government can't really lose, no matter how these scandals eventually turn out, because each of them will turn out one of three ways. The first possibility is that President Obama or someone high up in his administration was directly responsible for ordering the bad behavior of subordinates or for covering it up. The second possibility is that there was no malicious intent, just a series of bungled decisions. The third possibility is that all of the misdeeds were the responsibility of some functionary down on a lower level—rogue IRS agents in Cincinnati, overzealous prosecutors at the Justice Department, posterior-covering bureaucrats at the State Department—and the White House was unaware or disengaged.

So here are the alternatives: the administration was corrupt, it was incompetent, or it was ineffectual. And it may not be an "or," because each of the scandals could turn out a different way. We may end up concluding that the administration was corrupt and incompetent and ineffectual. But all we really need is one of the three to make the case against big government.

And here's the other thing. There will always be scandals like this, and there will always be more of them if we keep looking, because government is always doing things that are corrupt, incompetent, or ineffectual.

I am cautious about saying that the right can't lose, because Republicans have proven so inventive over the years in discovering new and unexpected ways to throw away their natural advantages. But if they avoid the one big pitfall of over-personalizing these scandals, this might be a no-lose proposition for the cause of small government—and a no-win scenario for President Obama.


2. Social Welfare

The most ambitious push-back against the attempt to blame big government for the administration's scandals come from The New Republic's Alec MacGillis.

"The laws and regulations that the Cincinnati crew so haplessly tried to enforce were not the result of a liberal dream agenda. They were the result of a triumphant conservative assault on a campaign finance system that has prevailed since the 1970s. 501(c)(4)s have emerged as the latest way to skirt limits and disclosure requirements for campaign contributions, an end-around that was given a big boost by recent court rulings, including Citizens United. If many big-government liberals had their way, there would be no office in Cincinnati vetting 501(c)(4)s at all because they would not exist in anything like their current form. How do we know this? Because there was a vote in Congress to force disclosure of major donors (those giving more than $10,000) to 501(c)(4)s, and most Democrats voted for it. Forcing donor disclosure would greatly reduce the appeal of that tax exemption, and would thereby reduce the need for civil servants to sift through filings and send out time-consuming, inane questions. But the Disclose Act was blocked by Republican opposition."

There was actually a lot more to the Disclose Act than that, but let it pass for now. This argument is catching on.

Michael Hiltzik writes that the "real scandal" is that "The IRS hasn't done nearly enough over the years to rein in the subversion of the tax law by political groups claiming a tax exemption that is not legally permitted for campaign activity." Sheila Krumholz and Robert Weinberger take to the pages of the New York Times to declare that what is "even more regrettable" than this scandal "is the long-term damage to the credibility of the IRS as an impartial arbiter of whether organizations merit tax-exempt status."

Steven Rattner argues that this is really a campaign finance scandal: "what the IRS...was trying to do—however dumbly it went about it—was to reduce the abuse of the campaign-finance rules, not the tax laws." Floyd Norris complains that the real problem is that political groups are being allowed to masquerade as organizations promoting "social welfare."

These arguments are misdirected. The scandal here isn't that the IRS was scrutinizing Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS organization. (It may surprise some of these people to learn that Karl Rove is not a Tea Partier, nor is he beloved by the Tea Parties, which view him as part of the compromising Republican "establishment.") The folks whose applications were being held up were small local Tea Party groups, whose applications were put in limbo for 27 months while the applications of left-leaning "progressive" groups were quickly approved. And the real damage is that these groups did not have the time, money, and lawyers to process unreasonable requests for information, precisely because they are not getting giant grants from the Koch brothers.

Meanwhile, Slate magazine, of all places, explains: "What social welfare functions do Tea Party groups perform? They educate you on the dangers of big government." You may not agree that big government is dangerous, but that's not a decision the IRS is supposed to be making.

Here's what bothers me most about this attempt to shift the discussion to campaign finance law and 501(c)4s. The essence of this scandal is that the government was caught abusing its power—and the reaction of the left is to argue for decreasing the ability of private citizens to engage in political activism.

But if government is out of control, we need more private political activity to hold it in check. You might even say that this contributes to social welfare.


4. Around the RealClear Universe

There's much more on the main page at RealClearPolitics, and here are some highlights and sidelights from around the RealClear universe.

RealClearMarkets links to Kim Strassel's argument that the IRS scandal "started at the top," and to Robert Samuelson's admonition against Washington, DC, for thinking that the budget has improved because we're going to have a deficit of "only" $642 billion this year.

RealClearReligion links to an interview with a Catholic professor who says she was harassed by the IRS after criticizing President Obama.

RealClearWorld links to a warning that Syria's civil war could last for ten years—like the Lebanese civil war, which lasted for 15 years.

RealClearTechnology links to a very loose estimate of what it would cost to build a real-life Starship Enterprise.

I have long had a theory that at least 10% of today's cutting edge technology is just an attempt to recreate something from "Star Trek." But RealClearScience links to a list of the worst science mistakes in the Star Trek franchise.


—Robert Tracinski

The Daily Debate

edited by Robert Tracinski

Brought to you by RealClearPolitics.

Robert Tracinski is also editor of The Tracinski Letter.

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