Something went wrong with the Triple Watergate that President Obama helped bring upon himself last week: the trio of scandals involving the Department of Justice, the Internal Revenue Service and the State Department somehow failed to connect with the American public. The polls are clear: if you already viewed Barack Hussein Obama as America’s Hitler, you’re even more convinced now. But if you thought of Our First Black President as a Fox News punching bag forced to clean up the disasters of the previous administration, the media hysteria probably hasn’t changed that, either.
The truth, as is usual when two extreme points of view take center stage, lies somewhere in between. “It’s All Bush’s Fault” is the standard snark leveled at those who assume the Obama Administration is always unfairly criticized, but now that Barack’s beginning his second term, it’s impossible to lay any of this at the feet of W. Isn’t it?
Actually, it is, and more so than you might think. Policy, much less history, doesn’t take place in a vacuum. So let’s take these scandals and examine them in the order which the GOP mysteriously decided to leak them to the public, seemingly waiting for this crucial moment when a sitting President makes his greatest push for new legislation and the House of Representatives gears up for the all-important mid-term elections:
Benghazi. The intelligence failure behind the deadly September 2012 attack on America’s Libyan consulate seems to carry the least traction with voters, possibly because the Republicans have been trying to label it as a Nixonian coverup every day since. Why did Obama’s people decide to spin the attack as a non-terror event caused by a YouTube video? To get him re-elected, perhaps? That’s the GOP storyline. And the explanation’s easy enough: it never happened.
Check out this complete list of Administration statements, in timeline form, issued since the Benghazi attack. Not only does the President refer to the incident as an “act of terror” immediately and every time thereafter, his spokesmen and appointed officials are careful to spin the “YouTube” explanation as a partial one, emblematic of “some of the unrest” that had already occurred “across the region.” The intelligence failure is obvious — the administration, far from certain about what had happened, considered the video as one of the causes. So why would they even imagine YouTube, of all non-state actors, as a possible trigger? Because the radical Syrian militia Ansar al-Sharia, which the US has depended on to defend the installation, told them so. And it was this militia that was ultimately responsible for the attack itself.
So why would a US embassy be defended by local militia in a notoriously unstable region? That answer’s also simple: Benghazi doesn’t have an embassy. Or even a consulate. The first American diplomat to be killed in 30 years wasn’t a diplomat at all — the facility at Benghazi housed a CIA mission to secure stability in the country, one which operated under the thinnest possible veneer of official diplomacy. This is why the US doesn’t even list Benghazi as an embassy on its State Department website. When the Bush administration convinced Qaddafi to become an ally, it brought the CIA in. Benghazi fell because it was destined to. All Bush’s fault? No. An unsustainable Bush policy handed to Obama? Yes.
The IRS and the Tea Party. This scandal, on the other hand, has the strongest legs, for obvious reasons: it combines Obama and the IRS, two things conservatives (and independents and some liberals) already hate. No one seems to know who first decided to “target” nonprofit grassroots organizations with “Tea Party” and “Patriot” in their titles for further review, but the media hype obscures a few facts which make this scandal look somewhat less than Nixonian. For one thing, the Bureau — led at the time by a Bush appointee — decided to use those terms to process conservative groups because, in 2010, conservative groups made up the vast majority of new organizations filing for tax-exempt status. There were almost no small progressive 501(c)(4) groups.
Why not? Back to Bush. When he ran for re-election in 2004, a group called Citizens United protested Michael Moore’s new movie, Fahrenheit 9/11, as being anti-Bush propaganda timed for release during the election. They filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, and when that was rejected, Citizens United began to work on their own propaganda films. Because they figured, like everyone else, that Hillary Clinton would be the 2008 nominee, they created a documentary called Hillary: The Movie, and used it as a wedge to take the issue all the way to the Supreme Court.
That court, conservatively leaning 5-4 thanks to appointments by You Know Who, upheld any organization’s right to make tax-free propaganda, as long as it can prove it’s not operating purely for political purposes. Instead, it was asked to prove that its primary functions fit the intentionally nebulous term “social welfare.” This opened up the floodgates for political organizations to apply for tax-free status, which freed them from disclosing their donors. The IRS using keywords to process these organizations was actually standard practice, one ironically instituted in order to make sure all groups got the same treatment. And how do we know this wasn’t an attempt to stamp out conservative voices? Because large, moneyed organizations on the right and left — like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS — sailed through without a hitch. (This is the same reason the IRS asked anti-abortion groups not to protest Planned Parenthood — not because they didn’t want them to have freedom of speech, but because tax-free speech had to prove itself apolitical.)
All Bush’s fault? Of course not. A bureaucratic Bush-era mess Obama was left to deal with? Definitely.
The AP Phone Records. Intellectuals who can parse the nuances of the first two scandals are nonetheless burning with rage over this one, and with some reason: Americans naturally view it as a First Amendment violation when their government acquires their phone records, and when it’s done in order to silence the press, it’s even more egregious.
But scandalous and illegal are not always the same thing. Subpoenaing a court for phone records is perfectly legal in America, when it’s done under a rapidly-expanding umbrella of loopholes, such as protecting national security. It’s the brazenness of the request that makes the offense for this administration — two whole months of personal and business call records (not wiretapped conversations, as has been reported), done without first giving the AP a chance to comply.
Offensive to lovers of personal liberty. But not at all new. After Nixon’s abuse of the FBI in gathering information on his “enemies,” strict policies were put in place to ensure that the feds couldn’t get phone records of citizens without a subpoena. Over the years, however, those restrictions have been significantly weakened. The Patriot Act, implemented by the Bush Administration after 9/11, not only instituted the modern-day loopholes Obama used but also created a whole class of workarounds called “exigent letters,” essentially granting the government access to those records at any time without any sort of notification or legal process. Use of those letters was supposed to have been discontinued when that non-scandal quietly broke in 2007; there’s no evidence that the practice ever stopped.
All of which is to say that bureaucratic ineptitude, the erosion of civil liberties, and foreign intervention — hallmarks of modern American government — were somewhat addressed after Watergate but have steadily crept back in the last two decades. Is Obama a power-mad dictator using federal power to crush his political opponents? There’s no real evidence of that. But he’s also never attempted fulfilling the promise that got him elected, twice: to roll back that same advance of empire. George W. Bush is largely responsible for creating The New Normal, and the GOP is laughably disingenuous at being horrified by it. But it does exist. And on Obama’s watch.