I just finished chatting about the IRS and AP scandals on the Marc Steiner show with Ari Berman of The Nation, the ACLU’s Gabe Rottman, and for the second half, FDL’s Kevin Gosztola. Podcast forthcoming here.
We disagreed, obviously, about how the IRS’s discrimination bears on campaign finance reform. I don’t see how the IRS scandal argues for putting even more power in their hands.
But I’d like to return to a finer point about which we disagreed but didn’t really get into. Berman seemed convinced that the discrimination was the result of front-line IRS employees deluged with a glut of new, post-Citizens United filings, that needed to come up with some criteria for sorting through it. This is more or less the argument the IRS itself has made (and somewhat similar to the one officials are making about Benghazi). For his part, Rottman contended that the politics didn’t matter so much as the discriminatory questioning itself. Here are four reasons why it’s hard to believe the IRS wasn’t just coping with an overflow of applications, despite the IG report’s assertion to the contrary.
- The questions themselves — If the IRS employees did not know that 501c4s are not required to disclose their donors when they asked for lists, then they are shockingly incompetent. So why did they want them? Either they intended to embarrass the donors by leaking them, or somewhat more benignly, it was just another question in a litany of unreasonable requests designed to hold up the approval process.
- Democratic calls to crack down on 501c4 groups — These are far from the only ones.
- Behavior and connections of IRS employees — The IRS commissioner knew about the targeting for at least a year and hasn’t reported it. She’s not even the one getting fired, and currently runs the IRS’s Affordable Care Act office. Director of the exemptions unit Lois Lerner’s initial apology contained a number of statements that were untrue, such as the number of organizations targeted and that it was confined to the Cincinnati office. Last night Jon Ward reported a congressional source said that Lerner hasn’t agreed to testify before Congress, is in Montreal, and has hired the same lawyer as Dominique Strauss Kahn.
- Leaks to liberal groups — ProPublica reported Monday that IRS employees leaked the applications of nine conservative groups. The National Organization for Marriage is now accusing the IRS of doing the same with their confidential information
There’s a lot we still don’t know, and today’s hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee (in progress) is only the first step in finding out. And IRS employees behaving in a partisan way does not imply White House involvement, of course. But I’d argue the totality of the evidence already points strongly toward there being political motivations behind the targeting.
Update: An early highlight from today
A classic C-SPAN clip from 1993 is doing the rounds on Facebook. Brian Lamb is frustrated when the “balanced” left-right discussion he tried to set up on Bill Clinton’s presidency is stymied by Pat Buchanan and Christopher Hitchens agreeing that Clinton is a neoliberal corporatist. Long clip, but worth watching—bookmark it.
According to many Republicans, Barack Obama has been scandal-plagued since sometime shortly after his inaugural parade. But only within the past few days have national political media begun to adopt the same view, as a cluster of controversies—over Benghazi, the IRS’s targeting of conservative activist groups, and the Department of Justice’s secret seizure of Associated Press phone records—emerged in quick succession, prompting journalists to announce that a watershed moment for the Obama presidency was at hand. “What we are witnessing is nothing less than a dramatic reversal of the nation’s political narrative,” declared Roll Call‘s Stu Rothenberg, who wondered whether all this augured a “game changer for 2014.” Continuing the theme, Politico theorized that these scandals will expose the limits of “a growing and activist government” and consequently “bolster the conservative worldview.”
Of the three controversies, Benghazi is most purely a product of the contemporary “conservative worldview”—Republicans have been promoting the story for eight months, fueled by a barrage of fury on Fox News and right-wing internet outfits. But the outrage has had virtually nothing to do with discontent over “a growing and activist government.” Instead, what seems to animate it is continued suspicion that the Obama administration deliberately lied about the nature of the attack to avoid suffering a potential setback in the heat of a presidential campaign. Last week’s hearing did lend a degree of credence to the theory—progressives are now less inclined to casually dismiss concerns that the post-attack talking points were manipulated—but regardless, recent developments had no bearing on the desirability of “a growing and activist government.” With very few exceptions, Republicans have not used the Benghazi saga as an opportunity to challenge the underlying logic of the Libya incursion, though a considerable swath of voters could be receptive to such a challenge, including disaffected Democratic-leaning folks who object to Obama’s interventionism and militarism.
In the case of the IRS “scandal,” when the news broke, Obama swiftly denounced the agency’s conduct as “outrageous,” and Democrats vowed to fully investigate. Assuming there is no further conspiracy, this issue may harm Obama in the short-term but seems unlikely to effect a broad-based shift in attitudes toward government power other than to intensify feelings among conservatives who already detest the president and the IRS. As the “Tea Party” brand remains extremely unpopular, progressives and independents will generate little sympathy for the self-described “Tea Party” and “Patriot” groups that were targeted.
By stark contrast, Monday’s revelation that the Justice Department seized two months’ worth of phone records from the Associated Press is a veritable “game-changer”—a full-blown scandal in every sense of the word. DOJ officials obtained these highly sensitive records in secret, preventing the AP from seeking judicial review; sources for as many as 100 reporters may have been compromised. Pulitzer Prize winners Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, whose investigative journalism has been indispensable, were among the targets.
The gravity of this “massive and unprecedented intrusion,” as the AP described it, cannot be overstated. Attorney General Eric Holder has claimed that his department carried out the action pursuant to a criminal investigation into a national-security leak that “put the American people at risk,” creating a situation that “required aggressive action” to remedy.
A substantial set of Americans, young people especially, has grown deeply cynical of state officials’ rote invocation of ill-defined “threats” to justify abridging core civil liberties. Ironically, this scandal is by far the most compelling example of what “a growing and activist government” might wreak—yet it also appears to be the scandal in which the GOP has the least interest. It most threatens Obama precisely because it is not tainted by partisan grandstanding. It is a scandal on its face and required no trumpeting from congressional zealots in order to enter the mainstream discourse.
But since the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans have demonstrated a remarkable inability to capitalize on Obama’s many vulnerabilities. Notwithstanding pumped-up “narratives” about the administration’s imminent downfall, there is little reason to expect much will change.
The most basic criticism of Obama turns out to be the truest. A one-term Senator doesn’t have much preparation for governing anything—yes, a risk that Republicans will have to keep in mind with Marco Rubio and Rand Paul—and government under Obama often seems to be run by functionaries. It’s all too plausible that Obama didn’t know, or care to know, about the IRS applying discriminatory standards against right-leaning 501(c)(4) groups, and his attitude toward Eric Holder’s Justice Department grabbing Associated Press phone records appears similarly blasé.
This is rather unlike the disgraced president to whom many Republicans want to compare the incumbent. As Dana Milbank puts it: “Nixon was a control freak. Obama seems to be the opposite: He wants no control over the actions of his administration. As the president distances himself from the actions of ‘independent’ figures within his administration, he’s creating a power vacuum in which lower officials behave as though anything goes.” That’s not exculpatory: a president is responsible for the abuses of his administration whether he orders them directly or simply creates the conditions in which they can happen.
It’s doubtful, alas, that congressional Republicans will treat these matters as anything other than opportunities for Benghazi-style partisan hype. There are fundamental matters behind each of these scandals that the GOP establishment does not want to face any more than Obama does. Namely: exactly what the CIA was doing in Benghazi (and why the U.S. had to be so deeply involved in Libya in the first place), the tremendous discretion the IRS enjoys over whom it targets and how, and the extent to which the War on Terror is really a War on Transparency in government. Failure to strike these problems at their roots only reinforces the idea that the GOP’s leadership cares not a whit for the substance of the issues but only about embarrassing Obama. That may be enough to rally the base ahead of 2014, but there are many other Americans—not nearly enough, to be sure—who actually would like someone to stand up for consistent standards, not only for the IRS but to check and limit arbitrary executive power across the board.
The answer, judging from the image projected by the vice president in an interview with historian Douglas Brinkley in Rolling Stone, appears to be yes.
It’s not far-fetched to think that Biden will run for president in 2016 on Obama’s coattails. This notion surprises many Republicans, who feel Obama is foundering and that Biden, who will be 74 at the beginning of the next presidential term, is too old. But Biden is smart to stay close to Obama, whose public-approval rating hovers just below 50 percent (a number that rises to around 75 percent among registered Democrats). Assuming Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016, she will sell herself as a successor to her husband, harkening back to the economic heyday of the 1990s. By contrast, if Biden gets into the race, it will be as an Obama Democrat promising to expand on the record of the last two terms.
A handful of observations about a potential Clinton-Biden rivalry:
1.) “Obama Democrat” and “Clinton Democrat” are no longer mutually exclusive. Hillary Clinton may come to personify the melding of the two political brands. The 2012 campaign saw President Obama rely on Clinton’s speechmaking and retail campaigning acumen to a far greater extent than he did in ’08. The former president’s contribution to Obama’s reelection was second in significance only to Obama’s efforts on his own behalf. In his stemwinder at the Democratic National Convention—an address that was emotionally and substantively superior to Obama’s acceptance speech—Bill Clinton entwined his legacy with that of Obama’s. In the event that both Biden and Clinton run in ’16, Hillary would in effect be able to run as a successor to both men.
2.) ”Experience.” In 2008, Hillary ran on the experience issue and failed miserably. She lost to a junior senator who had yet to complete his first term; the appeal to her service as first lady was laughed out of town. But let’s imagine, for our purposes, that 2016 won’t be a repeat of the novelty act that ’08 was. On foreign policy, in particular, Hillary lacked relevant credentials. This was the one issue portfolio where then-Sen. Biden could plausibly claim the upper hand. Hillary’s stint as secretary of state erases that gap.
3.) Benghazi. If, two to three years from now, the Benghazi issue still hovers over Hillary (which I doubt, but let’s say it will for argument’s sake), Biden will hardly be free of its taint. He brags to Brinkley of his tight relationship to Obama: “Think about it: Even our critics have never said that when I speak, no one doubts that I speak for the president. I speak for the president because of the relationship. And the only way that works is you’re around all the time. Literally, ever meeting he has, I’m in. You don’t have to wonder what the other guy’s thinking; I don’t have to guess where the president’s going.” Recall, in this context, Obama’s remark in the second presidential debate that Hillary “works for me.” By extension, she worked for Biden. If Benghazi still smells in ’16, the stuff will roll uphill from Foggy Bottom.
4.) Age and Sex. Hillary will have one very big advantage over Biden (and other male presidential aspirants) three years from now: She’s a woman. Having checked first black president off the list, Democrats will be eager to finally send a woman to the White House. And those worried about Hillary’s age—she’ll be 69 on Election Day ’16—will be able to favorably contrast her to Biden, who will be 74.
5.) Every waking moment of his life, Joe Biden exists on the knife’s edge of verbal catastrophe.
Sure it is, at least according City Journal‘s Steve Malanga. The Democrats have won convincingly in five of the last six presidential elections. But Malanga argues that those outcomes conceal the growing strength of the GOP in the states:
Since Obama first took office in 2008, Republicans have picked up a net nine governorships, bringing their total to 30 states, which hold nearly 184 million Americans. In 24 of those states, containing 157 million Americans, Republicans also control the legislatures. Democrats boast similar power in just 12 states, with a population of 100 million. Even Republicans’ unimpressive national showing last November didn’t reverse their state-level momentum.
The impressive number of Republicans in American statehouses is a matter of simple fact. Yet it’s curious that Malanga virtually ignores other simple facts: many of those governors won office in the Tea Party election of 2010, and are extremely unpopular today. The stars of Malanga’s long account of the “rise of Republican governors” include Michigan’s Rick Snyder, Florida’s Rick Scott, Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett, Maine’s Paul LePage, who won blue states on conservative platforms in 2010. Although they’ve have had some legislative successes, however, all of these governors face long odds of retaining their seats.
There are exceptions to this bleak prospect, most notably New Jersey’s Chris Christie. As Malanga acknowledges, however, Christie’s popularity is partly attributable to his partnership with Obama and criticism of the national GOP in response to Hurricane Sandy. And Republican governors are struggling even in solidly red states. Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, for example, has an approval rating in the high 30s that reflects widespread opposition to his signature plan replace the state income tax with a sales tax.
Considered in broader context, there’s little evidence that the GOP has a growing base of support in the states that could eventually be transformed into a national majority. So what accounts for the high number of Republican governors? A big part of the explanation, as Jamelle Bouie observed in connection with GOP’s likely win in Virginia this year, is that the electorate in gubernatorial elections tends to be smaller, older, and whiter than the electorate in presidential years. In short, Republicans win elections in which Republican constituencies are more likely to vote. This was particularly true in 2010, when Republicans mistook a demographic aberration for a national wave.
Republican success in the states, then, is perfectly consistent with continuing Democratic control of the presidency. One party is rooted in a dwindling but highly motivated base. The other dominates the broader electorate that turns out in big years. This dynamic means that Republicans will remain local players no matter what happens in Washington. The demographic source of their state-level strength, however, also threatens to lock the party out of the White House.
In conjunction with his appearance on Time’s 100 Most Influential People list, Sen. Rand Paul attended a gala sponsored by the magazine, where he toasted Henry David Thoreau—“just a guy,” Paul explained, who “wanted to live by himself,” but “society wouldn’t leave him alone.”
Obviously, the Kentucky senator, and possible 2016 presidential contender, chose to highlight Thoreau not just because he was an idealistic, contemplative loner. In the broader context of the liberty movement’s desire to see the Republican party reclaim the mantle of individual rights, it makes perfect sense that Paul would cheer Thoreau’s legacy of civil disobedience in the face of slavery and imperialism.
More, one can imagine Paul approvingly quoting Thoreau’s paean to trade and “commerce”—“its enterprise and bravery”:
Commerce is unexpectedly confident and serene, alert, adventurous, and unwearied. It is very natural in its methods withal, far more so than many fantastic enterprises and sentimental experiments, and hence its singular success. I am refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me, and I smell the stores which go dispensing their odors all the way from Long Wharf to Lake Champlain, reminding me of foreign parts, of coral reefs, and Indian oceans, and tropical climes. I feel more like a citizen of the world at the sight of the palm-leaf which will cover so many flaxen New England heads the next summer, the Manilla hemp and cocoanut husks, the old junk, gunny bags, scrap iron, and rusty nails …
Yet the pairing, however brief, of Paul and Thoreau had me stewing this past weekend. I was thinking about the desire to “be left alone.” Laissez-faire. Liberty defined as the absence of restraint. In order to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” Thoreau withdrew from the community, from the polis. Read More…
Just as Britain has a parliamentary system rather than separate executive and legislative branches at the national level, most localities in the UK are governed by “councils” that oversee everything from emergency services to schools. Yesterday elections were held for a large number of these local authorities—in places where the Conservative Party performed very well in 2009, presaging David Cameron’s (qualified) success in the following year’s parliamentary election.
The big story this year, however, is the rise of a “fourth party” atop the wreck of the coalition between Cameron’s Conservatives and Britain’s center-left third party, the Liberal Democrats. UKIP, the UK Independence Party, stands for restricting immigration, getting out of the EU, and opposing nanny-statism. (Some of Britain’s new alcohol regulations are the cultural equivalent of Mayor Bloomberg’s war on Big Gulps.) These are populist or nationalist former Tories and independents, though UKIP says it draws from all established parties. And while UKIP gets pilloried as a party of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” (in David Cameron’s words), as Tim Stanley points out, yesterday’s results show “Ukip have helped to smash the BNP … by providing a non-racist Right-wing alternative.”
Given the Tory party’s drift to the left under David Cameron, many on the right hope that pressure from UKIP and its voters will force the Conservatives to live up to their name again. The fear among Tories, however, is that UKIP will do to them what the center-left Lib Dems (in their various incarnations) did to Labour in the ’80s, siphoning away enough votes from the ideological base to permit the other major party to win—without the minor party picking up enough seats in Parliament to be a viable coalition partner. The likeliest outcome of UKIP-Tory fratricide is Labour victory. Think of, say, the Tea Party or the religious right breaking off from the GOP. The rump Republican Party would still be torn between going right to reclaim its lost base or trying to cobble together a centrist majority or plurality in general elections. Certainly there are Republicans who feel that shorn of the likes of Christine O’Donnell and Todd Akin, the party could win a few seats it’s lost in recent years. Read More…
A recent analysis of “The Lost Tribes of British Politics” at the ConservativeHome website (specifically, its Deep End blog) applies quite well to U.S. scene, too. The Deep End looked at ten philosophical factions vying for influence and rated them on a scale of zero (lowest) to five (highest) for their “intellectual inheritance,” “past glories,” “online presence,” and “future prospects.” As the first post, looking at Christian Democrats and Tory “wets,” explained:
In the age of the internet, you don’t need to have a political party behind you to have a voice. With an effective communications strategy and something to say, just about any school of political thought can take part in the battle of ideas. Furthermore, we shouldn’t take the existing party system for granted. Smaller parties now have the potential to breakthrough; while, in the major parties, factions that ran the show in one decade can be heading for extinction in the next.
Tory wets are analogous to the moderate Republicans of old—with a similar philosophy and once dominant within their party but now virtually annihilated. (Or at least disguised as something else.) Christian democratic parties of the sort found in Germany and Scandinavia, on the other hand, have never taken root in the U.S. or UK at all. So the first two tribes strike out.
The next two, the Blairites and the liberal interventionists, may seem like counterparts to the Obama administration, but not quite. Whatever their affinities with the present occupant of the White House, these tribes are indelibly branded with responsibility for the Iraq War and Great Recession, traumas that occurred under a center-left government in Britain. Take the worst parts of Bush and Obama, and that’s a reasonable proxy for Blair. The liberal interventionists in question, meanwhile, are “self-respecting lefties like Nick Cohen, Martin Bright and Oliver Kamm [who] now serve out lonely exiles on rightwing publications”—basically, left-wing neocons. These camps rate a 2 and a 1, respectively, for their future prospects.
So do the Labour left and the palaeo-socialists. The former scores a 2 for its prospects despite getting a boost from the Occupy movement, while “the premier palaeo-socialist blog is that of Neil Clark—sworn enemy of the liberal interventionists” (and a TAC contributor). The situation in the U.S. is parallel: American leftists, as opposed to partisan Democrats, aren’t all that happy with the Obama administration and the likes of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi; they miss Paul Wellstone and Russ Feingold. Some of the more staunchly antiwar ones prefer Ron Paul to Democrats’ leadership. So, yes, in America too their scores should be about a 2 or 1.
Next are the high liberals and the libertarians, variations on the same classical-liberal theme. The former are represented by The Economist and the Financial Times—over here they’re the Wall Street Journal kind of Republican, or at least the upper reaches of that demographic. As the Deep End says:
What the high liberals would really like is a Conservative Party without any conservatives in it—a sort of German-style Free Democrat Party, only bigger. No doubt, some of you might think that’s exactly what the Cameroons are giving them. But you’d be wrong. To a high liberal, euroscepticism of any kind is infra dig—as is anything that smacks of faith, flag and family.
I finally got around to watching this Intelligence Squared debate over the motion “The GOP must seize the center or die,” with David Brooks and Mickey Edwards arguing for, Laura Ingraham and Ralph Reed against. Their arguments will be familiar to most, the former arguing the party has become too extreme, alienating growing demographic groups, the latter that standing on principle is the way to success and moderates lost just as badly as conservatives in the last election.
The numbers paint an interesting picture of how the Republican Party’s problems are both more intractable than many realize and misperceived by most. Before the debate, 14 percent voted against the motion, afterward, 28 percent did, whereas the percentage of people voting for the motion remained at 65 percent, meaning the side opposed to the motion changed more minds, and won.
The biggest weakness in Brooks and Edwards’ argument is that they see the Tea Party as a fringe group dragging the party rightward and toward electoral oblivion. But a new study out this week shows that isn’t the case; those people are the Republican Party’s base—73 percent of Republicans who attended a rally were members of the Tea Party. The main differences between today and ten years ago are that they trust the party’s leadership far less, with 23 percent rejecting the party label entirely. Abby Rapoport elaborates on the ideological gap:
But the gap between the two groups is huge. In the YouGov survey the study uses, more than two-thirds of Tea Partiers put themselves in the two most conservative categories on economic policy, social policy, and overall policy. Only 23 percent of non-Tea Partiers place themselves in the most conservative categories on all three issues; nearly 40 percent don’t locate themselves in the most conservative categories for any of the three policy areas.
Most jarring: On some issues, like abolishing the Department of Education and environmental regulation, the establishment Republicans are actually closer to Democrats than they are to the Tea Party respondents. That’s a gap too large to be overcome by a few political action committees and gestures of goodwill.
Today that gap is playing out in everything from healthcare policy to minor votes in the House. It’s no doubt exacerbated by outside groups picking fights for donor-related reasons, but the problem would still be there in their absence.
To some extent the party is reaping what it’s sown; its reputation for fiscal prudence was deservedly squandered by a Republican administration that oversaw the invasion of two Middle Eastern countries, an attempt to buy the senior vote, and a bailout of the big banks. But there’s a bigger problem baked into the origins of the conservative movement. In The Conservative Movement (the book!) Paul Gottfried characterizes how neoconservatives learned to love the welfare state as having gotten off the train of democratic progress at a certain point and deeming all who’ve gone beyond feckless liberals, and all who disembarked before as hopeless reactionaries. Conservative intellectuals and party elites thought they could dictate where that point ought to be, and now they’re finding out how wrong they were.