Can President Barack Obama put out the brush fires that are sucking the air out of his second-term agenda? Can he stop the spread of mini-scandals that are consuming Washington?
No, he cannot. The president could (unconstitutionally) shutter every Internal Revenue Service office and fire every staffer, from top-ranking executives to lowly administrative aides, and it would hardly matter. Republicans would simply change the terms of the debate and impeach him for destroying the 16th Amendment.
Official Washington is now all spectacle, all circus, all manufactured outrage abetted by a press corps addicted to controversy. Actual policies are slighted while political posturing takes the stage; simmering problems are ignored while canned contretemps and stale theater consume all the attention. That has been true for years now, but it just keeps getting worse.
There are serious failings at the heart of each of the sideshows currently consuming officialdom. The most egregious concerns the IRS, where bureaucrats singled out conservative groups for a vetting that veered into political harassment. That not only violates deep-rooted ideals of fairness and justice, but it also contravenes federal law. It raises the specter of the sort of political harassment carried out by Richard Nixon, who wielded the IRS as a bludgeon against his political adversaries, and by J. Edgar Hoover, who ordered tax audits of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
While IRS-gate reflects poorly on Obama’s leadership, there is not a scintilla of evidence that he had anything to do with it. Further, the president has responded with aplomb: He has forced the resignation of the acting head of the agency as the FBI launches a criminal investigation. (That’s about all the administration can do since federal rules insulate IRS bureaucrats from elected officials, all in an effort to prevent scandals such as those mentioned above.)
If Republicans doubt the president’s ability to impartially oversee an investigation of his own administration, they might appoint a special prosecutor. Instead, they have promised more hearings on Capitol Hill — more partisan spectacle, more canned outrage, more useless theater.
Though the national press corps sticks to its unwritten rule of blaming Democrats and Republicans equally for the mess our national politics have become, the facts show that responsibility cannot be equally apportioned. Democrats don’t eschew partisan mudslinging, but they are not very good at it. The GOP, by contrast, has raised it to an art form.
Take a look at the last two presidential administrations. Though Bill Clinton reigned over an era of peace, prosperity and a balanced budget, the GOP impeached him on charges that grew out of an adulterous affair. George W. Bush took the country to war on the wings of a lie, tortured detainees and wrecked the budget. Democrats pointed fingers and conducted investigations, but they did not impeach him.
The news media, meanwhile, breathlessly report every email, every accusation, every pointed finger. They parse political winners and losers. Will the Benghazi hearings damage Hillary Clinton’s chances for the presidency in 2016? Will the IRS controversy hurt immigration reform? Will the controversies heal Republicans’ internal divisions?
As much as it troubles me to say so, Washington journalists have cast aside their traditional roles as trumpets of a substantive truth. They rarely uncover genuine abuses of power, cast a skeptical eye on untoward developments (such as the warmongering that led to the invasion of Iraq) or even explain the nuances of policy. Heck, they barely bother to inform the public when yesterday’s huge scandal becomes suddenly less, well, scandalous.
Take the budget deficits. Wasn’t it just two months ago that Republicans were insisting that the Obama administration was sending the entire nation to the poorhouse? What happened to those deficits?
As it turns out, they are shrinking, just as many mainstream economists had predicted. As the economy recovers, the federal government pays out less in assistance and takes in more in taxes.
You haven’t heard a lot of chatter about that or about the people hurt by the continuing cuts that were supposedly made necessary by that looming deficit. Many struggling Americans are finding their childcare options limited, their community clinics closed, their assistance for housing and meals shrinking — with little notice from official Washington. That’s the real scandal.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais