For the Obama administration, the month of May has gone from bad to worse.
Last week, news broke that the IRS had targeted Tea Party non-profit groups for increased scrutiny in advance of the 2012 election. On Monday, we learned that the Department of Justice had secretly obtained months of phone records from Associated Press reporters in a government investigation that the President of the Associated Press called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion.”
These stories are, by themselves, astonishing and frightening. Talk of government targeted “special reviews” and secret monitoring of the press evokes images of Stalin’s Russia or Mao's China rather than Washington's America. The fact that we’re even having a discussion of these issues should cause immediate pause and foster a serious and substantive discussion about whether it’s time to roll back the policies that effectively set aside our civil liberties following our collective freak-out after 9/11 (for anyone thinking this didn’t happen under the Bush administration, you haven’t been paying attention).
Unfortunately, if the reaction from Obama’s ever-vocal right flank is any indication, these very serious issues are going to be dumbed down and packed up into political footballs in the fight for 2016 rather than discussed and debated as they should be.
Conservative news outlets immediately started calling the IRS investigation an unholy crusade waged by the anti-Christ himself, lobbing accusations of “Chicago politics” and the creation of “an enemy’s list” by the White House. The breaking of the DOJ scandal caused right-wing pundits to take to the airwaves and Twitter to spin a story of “wiretapping” and vindictive, personal politics by an Obama administration out to get America’s real patriots. With the scheduling of hearings and calls for special prosecutors, the conservative backlash is going to get worse before it gets better.
This sort of rhetoric degrades the importance of these stories and turns serious constitutional and policy issues into meaningless blather and empty sound bytes. It turns an important dialogue over civil liberties into little more than political posturing for the next news and fundraiser cycles.
Instead of calling for special prosecutors and scheduling what are sure to be hearings focused on throwing political fireballs at the Administration, Republicans and Democrats should both be calling for legislation that rolls back the sweeping reach of the PATRIOT Act and other laws that give far too broad a power to the executive branch to engage in these kinds of activities (it's questionable whether the IRS actually did anything legally wrong). Rather than walking out and giving a very late condemnation of the IRS’ actions, Obama should be promoting policies that would roll back the powers that surveillance agencies currently enjoy while simultaneously implementing rules to ensure that similar nonsense will never happen again.
Instead, we get tired apologetics from the left and apocalyptic rhetoric from the right, two things that fail to move the ball on the real issue here; the extreme encroachment by government on our civil liberties and the immense potential for abuse of power that the executive branch now enjoys.
As the breadth of this latest DOJ bombshell comes to light, the dialogue must focus on the underlying problem rather than the shallow political issue. Does the Obama administration have egg on its face? Absolutely. Will using these events to score political points do anything to address the actual problem? Not in the least.
We need to take the time to discuss why the executive branch has the power to single out individual entities for “extra attention” and what we can do to decrease its ability to do so at will moving forward. Otherwise, whoever replaces Obama in 2016 will be able to do the exact same thing and next time, it might be more than a single news organization or collection of non-profits that becomes the target of enhanced government scrutiny.
For more on the developing IRS and DOJ scandals, follow Mark on Twitter: @markskogan