Republican Hysteria Over Pseudo-Scandals Prevents Consideration Of Real Problems

Scandals cartoon

One consequence of a dysfunctional opposition party which is more concerned with scoring political points than the good of the country is that we have a combination of attacks over fabricated scandals while ignoring real problems. The Republicans have concentrated on Benghazi, even resorting to distorting evidence, and the IRS, which looks far more like low level bureaucrats taking short cuts than any Nixonian abuse of power coming from the White House, despite the Republican attempts to move the goal posts.

One problem with trying to turn real problems into a political scandal is that the actual problems are not addressed. We need to look at issues such as how organizations are evaluated for favorable tax status and how foreign embassies are defended, not twist the facts to blame Obama. Strangely, conservatives who speak out (sometimes correctly) about the size of our bureaucracy fail to understand that the president does not personally make every decision. Republicans who ignored actual abuses of power under George Bush see everything which might go wrong as evidence of evil intent on the part of the current president.

There is a report today which provides hope that some Republican staffers, at least, are looking at trying to learn from the Benghazi attack:

The inquiry led by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee into the slaying of four Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last year has been attention-grabbing, but some senior GOP aides are worried that the partisan overtones are diverting Congress from identifying and addressing the real lessons learned from the attack.

In particular, these aides say key staffers have been overly consumed with chasing down or addressing inaccurate or unfounded accusations emerging from the inquiry.

“We have got to get past that and figure out what are we going to do going forward,” a GOP aide stressed. “Some of the accusations, I mean you wouldn’t believe some of this stuff. It’s just — I mean, you’ve got to be on Mars to come up with some of this stuff.”

In this charged political environment, where some on Capitol Hill have accused the president of a possible cover-up related to the attack just weeks before the 2012 presidential election, defense policy Republicans are trying to refocus attention on core issues and create some good out of the tragedy.

Hopeful, but I fear that the Republicans will still prefer to mislead their base in order to motivate them to turn out and contribute money as opposed to turning to reality-based governing.

One sign of business as usual among Republicans is that Darryl Issa, who pursues his job with the vigor and lack of integrity of Joseph McCarthy, is now attacking IRS inspector general J. Russell George.

Another problem is that real questions involving civil liberties are ignored, primarily as the Republicans would support greater violations. The Obama administration’s actions towards the AP raises First Amendment concerns even if this was done within the law and there are extenuating factors which also must be considered.While conservatives are generally only concerned with abuses which target conservatives, and which often only exist in their imagination, liberals have been non-partisan regarding both the IRS and the media. Liberals were no less likely to be concerned in principle that the target was from Fox with the naming of a  correspondent as a possible “co-conspirator” in an investigation of a news leak . The New York Times concluded their editorial on the matter by writing:

Obama administration officials often talk about the balance between protecting secrets and protecting the constitutional rights of a free press. Accusing a reporter of being a “co-conspirator,” on top of other zealous and secretive investigations, shows a heavy tilt toward secrecy and insufficient concern about a free press.

Along with excessive secrecy, in contrast to campaign promises to have the most open and transparent government in history, the use of drone strikes has led to much of the criticism of Obama from the left. There is some good news on this today, also from The New York Times:

President Obama embraced drone strikes in his first term, and the targeted killing of suspected terrorists has come to define his presidency.

But lost in the contentious debate over the legality, morality and effectiveness of a novel weapon is the fact that the number of strikes has actually been in decline. Strikes in Pakistan peaked in 2010 and have fallen sharply since then; their pace in Yemen has slowed to half of last year’s rate; and no strike has been reported in Somalia for more than a year.

We cannot rely on Congressional over-site as the Republicans would be more likely to promote greater use of drones and show far less concern over issues of either legality or morality. There have been mixed signs that the Obama administration has been moving towards establishing greater consideration of institutionalizing changes in warfare with development of due process and ideally judicial over-site. Hopefully this reduction in the use of drones indicates a greater consideration of the consequences of this policy.

 

Only Republican Base Believes GOP Noise On The Pseudo-Scandals

Despite all the Republican noise about Watergate-style scandals, most Americans are not being fooled. A CNN poll found President Obama’s approval at 53 percent, up from 51 percent in April (which is within the margin or error). Greg Sargent summarized how the internals of the poll find that only Republicans are falling for this:

* The IRS scandal: Among overall Americans, 61 percent say what Obama has said about the matter is mostly or completely true, versus only 35 percent who say it’s mostly or completely false. Among Republicans, 68 percent say what Obama has claimed is false, and among conservatives, 56 percent say this.But independents believe what Obama has said is true by 58-36, and moderates believe this by 71-25.

Meanwhile, among overall Americans, 55 percent say the IRS acted on its own in targeting conservative groups, while only 37 percent say the White House ordered it.  Among Republicans, 62 percent say the White House ordered it, and among conservatives, 54 percent believe this.But independents believe the IRS acted on its own by 53-36, and moderates believe this by 65-29.

* The Benghazi story: Among overall Americans, 50 percent believe early statements about the attacks by Obama officials reflected what the administration believed at the time, while 44 percent believe they intentionally misled. Among Republicans, 76 percent believe they intentionally misled, and among conservatives, 65 percent believe this. But moderates believe the statements reflected the administration’s beliefs by 60-35. (Among independents this isn’t as pronounced, but still, a plurality sides with the White House, 47-44.)

As long as Democrats and independents are not being fooled by Republican noise the Democrats should not have any serious political problems from these pseudo-scandals. However, the Republicans might receive some benefit from deceiving their base as this could increase turnout and contributions from the right.

Republicans are also attempting a strange shifting of the goal posts in trying to define whether there is a Wategate-style coverup. Republicans who abused power, such as Ricard Nixon and George W. Bush, would have the IRS investigate and harass political enemies. In the situation currently under investigation, lower-level IRS agents appear to be at fault, with those higher up conducting an investigation when the improper treatment of right wing organizations was uncovered. This is how the system should have worked, but Republicans are trying to twist things into claiming that knowledge of the probe by the Treasury Department or anyone in the White House suggests a coverup. It would have been a coverup if the White House had tried to hinder an investigation, but knowledge of the investigation and allowing it to proceed demonstrates nothing wrong.

Steve Benen points out an amusing twist to all of this. The White House (but initially not Barack Obama) became aware of the investigation in April, 2013.  However, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) was informed back in July 2012.  Should Democrats be accusing Issa of a coverup?

There were certainly mistakes made at lower levels, but there has been absolutely no evidence of either abuse of power or a coverup in the Obama administration. The only recent president who might be compared to Richard Nixon and Watergate was George W. Bush, not Barack Obama.

Conflicting Principles In Searching For Leak On Al Qaeda Informant

I’ve had several posts recently about two of the “scandals” surrounding the Obama administration. In one case, Benghazi, there is no real scandal–just another case of Republicans distorting the facts. In the case of the IRS, we have the rare case of Republicans being right about wrong-doing, but wrong in trying to tie this to Obama. The subpoena of AP records regarding sources on a story about a planned terrorist attack is more difficult to characterize. In this case, Republicans aren’t attacking Obama because they have no qualms about infringing upon First Amendment liberties, but many liberals are concerned.

Jack Shafer of Reuters has an excellent review of this case and his entire post should be read. He began:

Journalists gasp and growl whenever prosecutors issue lawful subpoenas ordering them to divulge their confidential sources or to turn over potential evidence, such as notes, video outtakes or other records. It’s an attack on the First Amendment, It’s an attack on the First Amendment, It’s an attack on the First Amendment, journalists and their lawyers chant. Those chants were heard this week, as it was revealed that Department of Justice prosecutors had seized two months’ worth of records from 20 office, home and cell phone lines used by Associated Press journalists in their investigation into the Yemen underwear-bomber leaks.

First Amendment radicals — I count myself among them — resist any and all such intrusions: You can’t very well have a free press if every unpublished act of journalism can be co-opted by cops, prosecutors and defense attorneys. First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams speaks for most journalists when he denounces the “breathtaking scope” of the AP subpoenas. But the press’s reflexive protests can prevent it from seeing the story in full, which I think is the case in the current leaks investigation.

See the full article for the specifics, but the gist of this is that the Obama administration’s concern here was not with preventing the press from publishing their reports but uncovering a leak. Also, this is not a case of someone leaking information which we necessarily wanted to get out, but the fact that an al Qaeda plot to bomb an airplane bound for the United States was stopped due to having an informant  recruited by British intelligence inside of al Qaeda.

Shafer concluded:

To begin with, the perpetrators of a successful double-agent operation against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would not want to brag about their coup for years. Presumably, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will now use the press reports to walk the dog back to determine whose misplaced trust allowed the agent to penetrate it. That will make the next operation more difficult. Other intelligence operations — and we can assume they are up and running — may also become compromised as the press reports give al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula new clues.

Likewise, the next time the CIA or foreign intelligence agency tries to recruit a double agent, the candidate will judge his handlers wretched secret keepers, regard the assignment a death mission and seek employment elsewhere.

Last, the leaks of information — including those from the lips of Brennan, Clarke and King — signal to potential allies that America can’t be trusted with secrets. “Leaks related to national security can put people at risk,” as Obama put it today in a news conference.

The ultimate audience for the leaks investigation may not be domestic but foreign. Obviously, the government wants to root out the secretspillers. But a country can’t expect foreign intelligence agencies to cooperate if it blows cover of such an operation. I’d wager that the investigations have only begun.

Since 9/11 there have been many situations where the government has gone overboard in placing security (and sometimes false claims of security) over civil liberties. The answer on this one is certainly not clear.

IRS Acted Improperly Without Evidence Of Involvement By Obama Administration

The investigations are far from over (especially as the Republicans will continue to milk this as long as they can) but evidence so far shows that  improper things were done by IRS agents with  no evidence of any involvement by the Obama administration.

USA Today reports that the IRS did approve tax-except status for some liberal groups while holding up applications from conservative groups

As applications from conservative groups sat in limbo, groups with liberal-sounding names had their applications approved in as little as nine months. With names including words like “Progress” or “Progressive,” the liberal groups applied for the same tax status and were engaged in the same kinds of activities as the conservative groups.

Reports so far do suggest that there was a clear tendency to place more scrutiny on conservative groups but the same article does report that the IRS didn’t exclusively target conservative groups:

Some liberal groups did get additional scrutiny, although they still got their tax-exempt status while the Tea Party moratorium was in effect. For the “independent progressive” group Action for a Progressive Future, which runs the Rootsaction.org web site, the tax-exempt process took 18 months and also involved intrusive questions.

Bloomberg also found that some liberal groups were treated as the conservative groups were:

The Internal Revenue Service, under pressure after admitting it targeted anti-tax Tea Party groups for scrutiny in recent years, also had its eye on at least three Democratic-leaning organizations seeking nonprofit status.

One of those groups, Emerge America, saw its tax-exempt status denied, forcing it to disclose its donors and pay some taxes. None of the Republican groups have said their applications were rejected.

Progress Texas, another of the organizations, faced the same lines of questioning as the Tea Party groups from the same IRS office that issued letters to the Republican-friendly applicants. A third group, Clean Elections Texas, which supports public funding of campaigns, also received IRS inquiries.

I wonder whether any of these political groups should really be receiving special tax treatment, but if tax exemptions are being given the same criteria should apply regardless of whether the organization is liberal or conservative.

CNN reports that two rogue IRS employees were primarily responsible for the extra scrutiny of conservative groups:

The Internal Revenue Service has identified two “rogue” employees in the agency’s Cincinnati office as being principally responsible for “overly aggressive” handling of requests by conservative groups for tax-exempt status, a congressional source told CNN.

In a meeting on Capitol Hill, acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller described the employees as being “off the reservation,” according to the source. It was not clear precisely what the alleged behavior involved.

Miller said the staffers have already been disciplined, according to another source familiar with Miller’s discussions with congressional investigators. The second source said Miller emphasized that the problem with IRS handling of tax-exempt status for tea party groups was not limited to these two employees.

While the misconduct at the IRS demands investigation, the politics provides a story which is just as interesting. Conservative groups tended to ignore direct abuses of power by the Bush administration, but both liberals and conservatives are condemning the targeting of conservative groups. There is a long history of liberals defending civil liberties regardless of the victim while conservatives have typically been more selective in taking sides on civil liberties issues.

Conservatives would love to tie this scandal to President Obama, who has condemned the misbehavior at the IRS. It is unlikely that any connection between the White House and this scandal will be uncovered. Most positions at the IRS are held by civil servants and the IRS Commissioner at the time was Doug Shulman, a Republican who had been appointed by George W. Bush.

While there is no sign of a Watergate-style scandal here, we can expect Republicans to continue to make noise about this. Unlike most of the scandals they scream about which are almost entirely fictitious, there was real wrong-doing here, even if not by the Obama administration. Generally Republicans have resorted to fear, greed, racism, and xenophobia in their appeals to the base. This gives the Republicans a scandal which they can use to fire up the base, and use for fund raising, which will not alienate people outside of their bubble. This also allows Republican leaders to align themselves with the Tea Party without necessarily embracing their nuttier views.

Cry Wolf Often Enough And Conservatives Are Bound To Be Right (As With Claims Of Being Targeted By The IRS)

With conservatives loving to play the part of the victim and inventing all sorts of outrageous transgressions in their imaginations, it is often hard to take anything they say seriously. Today it was revealed that their claims of  being targeted by the IRS are true:

The Internal Revenue Service on Friday apologized for targeting groups with “tea party” or “patriot” in their names, confirming long-standing accusations by some conservatives that their applications for tax-exempt status were being improperly delayed and scrutinized.

Lois Lerner, the IRS official who oversees tax-exempt groups, said the “absolutely inappropriate” actions by “front-line people” were not driven by partisan motives.

Rather, Lerner said, they were a misguided effort to come up with an efficient means of dealing with a flood of applications from organizations seeking tax-exempt status between 2010 and 2012.

During that period, about 75 groups were selected for extra inquiry — including burdensome questionnaires and, in some cases, improper requests for the names of their donors — simply because of the words in their names, she said in a conference call with reporters.

Lerner is also sure to regret admitting “I’m not good at math” even if she is an attorney.

It is difficult to understand how she can say that they were not driven by partisan motives when the victims were of a specific political philosophy. While only speculation, I wonder if some people at the IRS believed that groups which have a philosophical opposition to taxation are more likely to violate tax laws. In the absence of any evidence against these specific groups, that would be wrong. Criticizing the IRS and our tax system should be protected speech under the First Amendment. Advocating change in laws which a group disagrees with is allowed under our system of government and is not evidence in itself that they are violating the laws they want changed.

I might also be over thinking this. It might have been a more visceral and petty reaction, retaliating against those who criticize their organization. That would also be wrong. We do need a full investigation as opposed to speculation as to their motives.

The IRS says that this came from lower level people and was stopped by those higher up. While there is no evidence to question this so far, this also needs to be investigated.

Reaction to this is varied. Mitch McConnell is calling for an investigation, and he is right to do so, even if there is no evidence of a comparison to the Nixon White House. . Hopefully this remains a proper investigation and doesn’t turn it into yet another politicized witch-hunt which Republicans have spent so much time (and tax payer money) conducting.

Portions of the conservative blogosphere are, as would be expected, showing that they are out of touch with reality even on an issue where conservative groups are right. American Thinker  writes:

And who are these “low-level” employees in Cincinnati who started the reviews? Are we seriously to believe that a couple of minor bureaucrats could alter IRS policy so easily?  If that’s the case, what other abuses isn’t the IRS telling us about?

To be part of a government run by a Democratic president and then investigate opposition groups, harassing them, trying to discourage their political activities is the sort of thing we find in Russia.

Ridiculous reactions of this type don’t help conservatives. Of course this is the same site which compares Benghazi to Watergate and yesterday tried to find a way to justify this article title: Ariel Castro, Cleveland Kidnapper, Is a Registered Democrat. (I an having trouble finding their articles criticizing real abuses of power during the Bush years from the unconstitutional attempts to expand the power of the presidency to the K-Street Project. I had no trouble finding plenty of examples at the site promoting the right wing’s imaginary case against ACORN or claiming that Barack Obama is a socialist.)

There is absolutely no evidence that we have a Democratic president exercising autocratic powers against their enemies. Historically this has more often been a Republican practice. And how are liberal bloggers responding? Are they lining up along ideological grounds, cheering on these abuses against the right. No, not at all. Liberal response has been that this is wrong and warrants a full investigation. Steve Benen wrote:

The boys who cried wolf may have dubious credibility, but to mix metaphors, even a broken clock is right twice a day.I suppose one might argue that Tea Party groups were inherently partisan, and their claims for tax-exempt status were suspect given the movement’s larger purpose, but it’s a tough sell. The IRS is supposed to be even-handed, and in several cases, it seems clear that the agency was not.

This is the sort of thing that costs officials their jobs…

For a change, all of these complaints are legitimate. There really was wrongdoing. Groups really were treated unfairly. It’d be wrong to dismiss the complaints, assuming the right is just manufacturing some new pseudo-scandal; this really does deserve to be taken seriously.

Also see responses from Think ProgressKevin Drum and Greg Sargent. The left has stuck with principle (and is concerned with uncovering the actual facts)  as opposed to following the right’s usual logic of support or opposition based upon partisan lines, while ignoring the facts.