The Republican opponents and the Republican supporters of the Gang of Eight immigration deal each have a flawed approach to citizenship and social cohesion. More tomorrow.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. While I wish that more people in politics talked like Yuval Levin and Austin Frakt I have a high tolerance for harsh political rhetoric. I know that in politics, some people are going to say vicious, ugly things and sometimes even believe them. I also think that the people who use harsh language should be open to criticism and judgment, but they should only be held responsible for the things they actually say, and not the actions of ideological fellow travelers. If you are so stupid/evil that hearing that the Tea Party/Occupy Wall Street is racist/communist gets you to go out and break the law or misuse your authority, that is on you. Three hundred million Americans should not have to walk on eggshells because you might go off at the first sign of political hyperbole.
But not everybody feels that way. New York Times political entertainer Paul Krugman argued that, even though the Gabby Giffords shooter was mentally ill, conservatives were still somehow responsible for the “national climate” that led up to the shooting. Well it turned out that the Giffords shooter was not just mentally ill, but that his obsessions had nothing to do with partisan politics. But let us grant Krugman’s argument that toxic political rhetoric can lead the suggestible to misbehave. The Giffords shooting turned out to be a bad example, but you know what, under Krugman’s standards, would be a good example of toxic rhetoric encouraging misbehavior? The IRS targeting of conservative groups.
The upsurge of conservative political activism in 2009-2010 produced a flood of hostile liberal commentary. Liberal entertainers, New York Times columnists, and even former President Jimmy Carter denounced the activist opponents of President Obama as racists. The incumbent Speaker of the House condemned Tea Party organizations as phony “astroturf” fronts for the wealthy.
At about the time that prominent liberal journalists and politicians were attacking a citizen-activist movement as racists engaged in fraud, a very liberal-leaning bureaucracy began to routinely flag Tea Party groups for further review, asked bizarre and inappropriate questions about the prayers of group members, tried to get a pro-life organization to promise not to protest Planned Parenthood, and leaked information about these groups to a liberal media organization. It appears the suspect IRS behavior was not limited to a cell of rogue agents in the Cincinnati branch.
This systemic and long-lasting abuse of government power by liberals is a much better example than the Giffords shooting of what happens when irresponsible and hysterical partisans try to produce a “national climate” of fear and hate in order to marginalize their small-d democratic political opponents. In the days after the Giffords shooting, liberal-leaning news outlets lectured us on the need for more civility in our politics – even though there was no evidence that the Giffords shooting was “political” in any sense that most Americans would recognize.
Now we learn that the public campaign by liberals to demonize their opponents coincided with a campaign of harassment against conservative groups by a liberal-leaning bureaucracy. Will the mainstream media point the finger at liberal partisans for creating a “national climate” where federal government employees felt they were justified in using their power to target the Tea Party and pro-lifers? Will we be told that it is the Jimmy Carters and Nancy Pelosis, and Charles Blows of the world who embolden suggestible and corrupt to do commit, and that it has been liberal partisans who have been poisoning the atmosphere with their rhetoric. According to the standards the mainstream media employed during the Giffords shooting, it is the liberal partisans who are partly at fault for the IRS scandal.
I share Carl’s frustration and outrage of course. It is at least as much the insult of the defenses offered by the IRS as the offenses themselves. So the new guidelines were needed to deal with a flood of applicants even though they were instituted before any spike in applications. So if they are psychic, why the need for all the intrusive questions? And if the IRS employees are so overworked and short of time that they need to single out groups that (coincidentally) oppose the incumbent president, why do they have time to ask bizarre questions about prayers by members of these groups and why do they feel the need to be assured that members of these groups will not protest Planned Parenthood? Probably just an incompetent but innocent case of under supervised employees trying to manage their workload. Yup, no partisan targeting there. The final insult was that weasel Steven Miller asking for a bigger budget in order to prevent future abuse. Presumably they will then be able to investigate liberals too. Or ask twice as many harassing questions of conservative groups. Whatever. What are you going to do about it?
But I don’t really share Carl’s hopes that this scandal this will do much to shift the opinions of the swing-voters (never mind weakly identifying liberals) in regards to Obama. So liberal-leaning government employees harassed groups opposed to Obama and officials at the Treasury Department hid the information until after the election. Unless it actually goes to Obama (and maybe even if it does), I’m not sure how many opinions it changes. I tend to think of scandals as an opportunistic disease in their effect on public opinion regarding the president. If the median voter is discontented with how things are going, a scandal might turn that discontent into hostility. If they are basically happy with how the president is doing their job, the median voter is willing to overlook a lot.
Obama’s job approval rating seems to be holding up okay so far. The median voter seems basically indifferent to him. The economy is growing slowly and unemployment is high, but recent experience has tempered expectations. Reagan won forty-nine states with an unemployment rate that would have been political death fifteen years earlier.
George W. Bush’s job approval rating slid by about seven percent in the first five months of 2004. That coincides with the coverage of the Abu Ghraib scandal, but there was a lot going on at the time so I’m not sure how much value to assign to the scandal. That doesn’t mean that the combination of publicity, activism among a party’s base, and outrage among elected elites can’t result in legal change, but my sense is that if the persuadable public turns hostile toward Obama over the IRS issue, it will be because other events convince them not to like Obama in the first place.
Romney campaign honcho Stuart Stevens is getting some mockery for his assertion that lots of people thought that Romney was a Catholic against contraception at the end of the primary season. To the extent that Stevens is blaming any part of Romney’s loss on the public’s mistaking Romney for Santorum, then Stuart deserves all the mockery he gets and then some.
But on the other hand, I do think (entirely from anecdotal evidence) that some basically apolitical people thought that Romney was the abortion extremist and obsessive in the race. That doesn’t make sense on one level. Romney only talked about abortion when asked while Obama talked abortion much more often. You would think that Obama would be the abortion guy. The problem is that the Republicans ceded the initiative to the Democrats on abortion. Since the Democrats were defining the debate on abortion, the discussion was about very-unlikely-to-ever-happen restrictions like abortions in case of rape. Meanwhile Obama, who actually voted against a born-alive-infants-protection-law and lied about his reasons, could portray himself as the relative moderate. That Obama could pull off this fraud is not the fault of Rick Santorum or the Republican primary process. It is the fault of cynical Republican campaign consultants (and candidates) who have not caught up to how Democrats have changed the game. Republicans would be better off adopting a more gradualist abortion agenda and aggressively going after the abortion extremism of the Democrats.
I would also imagine that Republicans haven’t developed strategies to effectively communicate with a large and growing fraction of the population and that this needs to be addressed alongside any policy and rhetorical changes they make.
Friend of Postmodern Conservative Ken Masugi writes over at the Liberty Law blog that the biggest problem of the IRS scandal is not corruption within the Obama administration as such, or even problematic management by Obama and his political appointees. The problem is that elements of the career federal bureaucracy so indentify with one of the two major political coalitions that they will abuse their authority to harass those they perceive as the political opposition.
This has implications beyond the IRS scandal. Take immigration. Any amnesty is going to have some kind of cutoff date for who is eligible (you must have been living in the US since… ). Immigration officials could undermine this by choosing to accept obviously fraudulent documentation. That isn’t even my biggest concern. If we were to move to a Canadian-style system in which immigration policy favors higher-skill and language proficient applicants, implementation could be foiled by immigration officials who accept obviously fraudulent credentials and/or who turn language proficiency tests into a farce. I’m not saying that is going to happen, but it is something that lawmakers should take account of in creating verification procedures
Hat tip to my old blogging colleague Julie Ponzi for the link.
Karl Rove’s American Crossroads group has a new ad about Hillary Clinton and Benghazi. It isn’t bad for what it is, but the ad is a waste as anything other than a reminder (to donors) of the existence of American Crossroads. It is basically an attack ad for a presidential campaign that is three years in the future against a person who might well not be the Democratic nominee. You can imagine such an ad possibly making a difference if this week’s Benghazi hearing had taken place in October 2016. The idea that this is somehow shaping the political environment of 2016 or 2014 is absurd. By that time, I doubt any persuadable voter is going to be thinking “Must vote against the Democrats because of something something Benghazi.”
The ad is premised on a mistaken idea of how outside Republican groups can influence the debate. American Crossroads basically just produces opportunistic ads based on whatever is happening in the news cycle. Remember when ads about how Obama “bowed” to China were going to make a difference? Me neither, but Rove manage to waste hundreds of millions of donor dollars on these kinds of commercials in the 2012 cycle. They were ineffective at anything other than enriching Republican consultants.
Republicans (and conservatives) don’t need to outside groups to help them win the news cycle. Republican campaigns are perfectly capable (and have the appropriate incentives) to make candidate-focused tactical commercials and ad buys based on the news of the week. Outside groups are in a position to make long-term investments in popularizing conservative ideas or conservative approaches to issues. Money spent explaining the human reality of the late-term fetus and tying late-term abortion to the abortion extremism of the Democratic party would actually be worthwhile because it would make it easier for future Republican candidates to attack Democrats and advance incremental abortion restrictions. You could make similar investments in advancing conservative health care reform or conservative tax reform.
This may sound naive, but it is actually the current strategy of the conservative outside groups that is naive from the perspective of everyone except the people cashing the checks. The news of the day usually gets forgotten soon enough. Remember the time Obama bowed to the leader of China? Don’t you see how it symbolizes the Obama deficits? Well if you don’t have an axe to grind, you probably don’t remember the bow and don’t see why that bow constitutes a reason to vote for Mitt Romney. People are more likely to remember how they can have bigger paychecks, or about how horrible it is that late-term fetuses can be destroyed virtually at-will. The American Crossroads model gives the impression of taking the fight to the Democrats, but it is mostly pro-wrestling. It is more effective at vacuuming money out of the marks (donors) than doing harm to the nominal opponent.
The following is a rush transcript of the October 18, 2013 edition of “Special Report with Bret Baier.” This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
CHRIS WALLACE, HOST: Good evening. I’m Chris Wallace in for Bret Baier. Following stunning revelations that President Obama had personally ordered and sometimes participated in IRS investigations of Tea Party groups, Obama spokesman Jay Carney faced difficult questions from the White House press corp. Reporters were especially angry because they felt lied to by Carney because of his earlier statements that the targeting of conservative groups was carried out by low-level IRS officials. Here are some examples of the questions and Carney’s answers:
MAJOR GARRETT, CBS NEWS: Jay, you originally said that the targeting was carried out by low-level IRS officials. Isn’t this misleading when now we learn that the president ordered these investigations and sometimes personally mailed the questionnaires after scrawling obscene comments in the margins?
JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECEREATARY: I would refer you to the many earlier statements made by the White House over the course of this investigation. Our position has been perfectly clear, open and consistent. We said that the targeting was done by IRS officials. I would also refer you to the Constitution. In Article II, the Constitution says it is the president’s responsibility to make sure that federal law is faithfully executed. That means that every law is under the president’s purview. So the president is an IRS investigator, a meat inspector, an air traffic controller, and a park ranger among much else.
So when the president ordered the investigation of those groups, he was acting in his capacity as an IRS official. So if you look at our statements and take the time to think about the president’s constitutional responsibilities, you can see that there is no contradiction between our original statements and the old news that you are now bringing up again.
JONATHAN KARL, NBC NEWS: Jay, but you said low-level IRS officials. How is it not changing your story to now admit that the president was involved to the point where, according to one recently leaked email, he told IRS executives to quote “audit and reaudit those Tea Party scum until even their dead relatives commit suicide.” Isn’t this a change in the White House’s position?
CARNEY: There has not been the slightest change in our position. The email just proves how open and transparent we have been throughout this entire process. We described the person involved in these investigations as low-level.
The president is a man of powerful and ever-evolving, but also very humble faith. Compared to the Almighty, we are all low-level. If you look at the record of the president’s past statements and the two books he has written, you can see that he often refers to himself as low-level. It is something of a running joke in the White House and at campaign events. The original draft of the FBI talking points on the IRS investigations did include a direct reference to the president by name, but we made the stylistic change to quote “low-level” as a well-known euphemism for the president that would have the added advantage of not prejudicing the FBI’s investigation of the matter.
WALLACE: Carney assured reporters that quote “an FBI official” would conduct a thorough investigation. Congressional Republicans and Tea Party groups are demanding hearings. The New York Times published a rare Friday afternoon web editorial condemning the calls for new hearings related to the IRS scandal as quote “a partisan witch-hunt based on old and discredited information.” More on this later with the panel.
The Obama administration sent Susan Rice out to lie when she said that the Benghazi attack was a “spontaneous” (with RPGs!) response to a YouTube clip. I just don’t think that foreign Muslims were the intended audience for the lie. The Obama administration could have groveled and apologized as much as they wanted about the unfortunate fact that Americans are allowed mock religions. They could have thrown the poor sap who made the video into a dungeon for spitting on the sidewalk. They never had to bring Benghazi into it. How does it calm down Muslims who are upset about the YouTube clip to link them to a terrorist attack that they had nothing to do with? Blaming the Benghazi attack on the YouTube clip was about domestic American politics.
As a political matter, Benghazi presented several potential problems for the Obama administration. The administration had failed to improve security at the consulate despite requests, failed to anticipate an Al-Qaeda attack on September 11, and failed to mount a prompt rescue mission. These could all be explained by a combination of bureaucratic sloth, intelligence failure and possibly reasonable caution. That’s bad, but no party has a monopoly on error.
But an honest accounting that the Benghazi attack was carried out by an Al-Qaeda affiliate would also have opened the Obama administration to plausible (one can argue whether fair) charges that they were negligent, incompetent, and cowardly in this case. It would also have potentially undermined the “Bin Laden’s dead” narrative. Well, Al-Qaeda is alive, our ambassador is dead, and you don’t know what you are doing. The story about the YouTube clip turned it from a successful terrorist operation (to which the administration responded slowly) to a “spontaneous” and unforeseeable response to an unforeseeable event. The YouTube clip was like an earthquake or something and the ambassador was killed as a result. You can’t blame the president for an earthquake can you?
Now I think that when it comes to Benghazi, both the fears of Democrats and the hopes of Republicans were equally misplaced. The American public has a high tolerance level for foreign policy error. Clinton had his disaster in Somalia where over a dozen American personnel were killed. Over two hundred American service personnel were killed in the Beirut bombing under Reagan. Both won comfortable reelections. George W. Bush pursued the wrong policy in Iraq for two years before the public turned on him. The Benghazi attack was much closer to the election, but what minds were going to be changed by the fact of the attack itself? It wasn’t like the median voter was going to forget that they disliked Bush’s handling of Iraq, or that they would have concluded, from this one attack by an Al-Qaeda affiliate, that Obama’s whole approach to terrorism was a failure. It wasn’t like Mitt Romney was offering a popular set of alternative policies. The public’s perception of Obama’s handling on foreign policy was not based on the idea that he was perfect, just that he was better than the guy who came before. If the Obama administration had been honest and explained how they would do better in the future, they would have taken some lumps for a few days from their opponents, and the story would have moved on.
But I’m not writing this in the heat of a campaign. Lying about Benghazi must have seemed like an easy way out of a political jam. They should be called on their lie, but I don’t know how much damage this does to Obama in the long-run.