Scandals show need for civil-liberties coalition
SACRAMENTO – The Obama administration has gotten itself into a fix between its contradictory stories about the Benghazi incident, reports of the IRS targeting conservative groups and the Justice Department’s grabbing of phone records from AP reporters. There are few things more fun to watch than arrogant political leaders – folks who spend their lives bossing everyone around –getting a comeuppance.
My favorite take wasn’t from any serious commentator but from comedian Jon Stewart, who noticed that the president routinely claims ignorance about embarrassing events by saying that he learned of them while watching the news: “I wouldn’t be surprised if President Obama learned Osama bin Laden had been killed when he saw himself announcing it on television.”
I take a bipartisan approach to Washington, D.C., political scandal and find myself savoring them all, regardless of the party that is in control of the White House. Any sane person would conclude that all administrations and bureaucracies essentially are corrupt given that they thrive on the exertion of power of other people. We know about the corrupting influence of power, and DC has become like ancient Rome that way. It’s a magnet for those seeking favor, money or a big title administering some pointless program.
I visited DC last week and was astounded at the booming economy, the endless new construction, the astronomical prices and garish displays of wealth everywhere – not to mention the haughty attitudes of every pissant assistant to the whatever. That’s what Other People’s Money buys you. When Ronald Reagan talked about the Shining City on the Hill he was speaking metaphorically about America, but the new shining city is DC – funded on the backs of all those Americans who blithely vote for people who promise to solve their problems.
That’s the main lesson from this latest mess: the federal government is an untamable beast. These superficial scandals are nothing compared to the things we will never learn – i.e., the way the CIA conducts its business overseas.
Still, there are so many things to savor as President Obama circles the drain. Obama has always exuded an intellectual arrogance. Yet if he’s so smart, why would his Justice Department target reporters. The national media has fawned over the president, but the quickest way to end that love affair is to go after their personal records.
Unfortunately, many people insist on seeing every scandal in terms of partisanship. Conservatives are aghast, as they should be, at the thought of an IRS auditing groups based on their political views. That is eerily totalitarian. But where would they have been had a Republican administration done the same thing to liberal critics? I doubt the activist groups would be sending out the alarmist direct-mail pieces if the latest Bush were still president.
The best news from the ongoing drama is that people on the Left and Right see problems here. Let’s use that as a foundation for a renewed civil-liberties coalition that understands that there are many bright red lines in which the government – regardless of who nominally is at the head of it –does not cross. That’s easier to do when one realizes that our supposedly limited government is so limitless in its size, power and taxing ability that no president can control it.
When pundits complain about excess partisanship, what they usually are really saying is they are tired of all the political fighting. Yet political fighting is good – it’s a sign of differences of opinion and assures that important issues get debated, however clumsily, in the public.
In Sacramento, the Republican Party has imploded and there is little worry about partisanship. But the state’s Democratic Party is now engaged in policies so secretive that even liberal-oriented pundits are getting concerned. No one has the power to say no, so the Democrats are ramming through every manner of dangerous bill.
The new health-exchange law shields most contracts under a veil of secrecy so that public money can be dispensed to friends and cronies without the public learning about where it is going. Democratic leaders have embraced a gut-and-amend frenzy – proposing dozens of bills with placeholder language that will be stripped away at the last minute with new and completely different language inserted. This circumvents normal debate and oversight.
This is not a Democratic problem per se, but a government problem. And local governments are arguably even more dangerous to our liberties. In Bakersfield recently, after Kern County sheriff’s deputies beat to death a young father (after being called to the scene for a minor incident – public drunkenness), they grabbed the cellphones of bystanders who were recording the incident. That’s right out of a police state.
Government is about power and force. Many people charged with power over others will abuse it. That’s human nature. Unfortunately, the nation’s founding ideals – limited, accountable government, with separated powers and checks and balances – have been fading away. Government is so big that even the president and the attorney general claim they have no idea what their departments are doing. I almost believe them.
We need to rebuild a coalition of civil libertarians of the Left and Right who agree to some basics, on some bright red lines that no government should cross. We need to provide a unified, bipartisan front on behalf of individual liberties and against any official from any party who would trample them. Maybe we can learn that constructive lesson from the administration’s unreconstructed behavior.
(Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)