Eliana Johnson correctly identifies the emerging GOP narrative about President Obama’s relationship to the IRS scandal. The president, we are told, has fostered a “culture of intimidation” that encourages the vilification of one’s political opponents, thus inducing bureaucrats to target those whom the president has demonized.
I understand why the GOP is pressing this line. So far, it lacks evidence of White House involvement in the scandal, but wants to blame Obama anyway. And Obama has tended to vilify his political opponents.
Unfortunately, however, the “culture of intimidation” narrative strikes me as weak and whiney — the kind of thing I’d expect from Democrats. In fact, it’s similar to attempts to blame violence such as the Arizona shooting of Rep. Giffords and others on the “demonizing” rhetoric of conservatives.
Politicians are responsible for their words, for the actions they advocate, and for the actions they take. But they are not responsible when/if a third party is motivated by their words to take actions they haven’t advocated. To argue otherwise is to discourage forceful advocacy. Politicians’ words can affect listeners in a wide variety of ways. They shouldn’t worry about how extremists will be affected.
I happen to agree that some of the rhetoric and tactics Obama has employed against his critics, including the Tea Party, is unpresidential at best. Eliana’s piece provides examples. George W. Bush, and indeed most of Obama’s predecessors, absorbed harsh attacks without responding in kind. Richard Nixon is the main exception, and this fact supports comparisons between Nixon and Obama.
Obama therefore deserves criticism for the way he deals with political opponents. But that criticism is independent of the wrongdoing of overzealous partisans within the civil service. Obama’s rhetoric would be just as offensive if the IRS had not acted improperly and is not made more offensive because the IRS has done.
I also believe that Obama has little appreciation for the democratic process, including the right to dissent from his agenda without suffering for it. In my view, he regards democracy and dissent as hindrances to the march of history he fancies himself leading.
But to make this indictment stick, we must point to concrete evidence, such as that mentioned in Eliana’s piece. Speculation that bureaucrats acted improperly because of Obama’s rhetoric doesn’t meet that standard.
Having observed the federal bureaucracy up-close for 45 years, I can testify that many bureaucrats don’t need presidential rhetoric to advance left-liberalism through improper and/or abusive action. In fact, they do so even when the president is a non-liberal.
But this isn’t really my point. Whatever may be true of federal bureaucrats, trying to link their misconduct to general presidential rhetoric is a lazy man’s game. It smacks of whining and is unlikely to resonate except among those who already dislike Obama.
There are two valid takeaways from the IRS scandal. First, it confirms that big government, whose power Obama is bent on expanding, cannot be trusted to behave properly. Second, it calls for further investigation to determine how high up the chain the wrongdoing extends and whether the administration acted promptly to stop the targeting once it learned of that activity.