Republicans and the Long Game

Republicans and the Long Game
May 18, 2013

Benjamin Domenech

Benjamin Domenech (bdomenech@heartland.org) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute. Domenech... (read full bio)

The sudden deluge of scandal which dominates the discussion around President  Obama’s administration at the moment has handed a golden opportunity to  Republicans. Yet if they aren’t careful, they’ll squander this opening  completely by allowing their intense dislike of the president to cloud their  judgment, missing the broader political lessons for the sake of personal point  scoring.

Personal scandals are personal. They are tied to defects and appetites, as in  the case of Bill Clinton, John Edwards, John Ensign, and a host of others. With  rare exceptions, such scandals begin and end with that individual, not with  their broader political philosophy. The American people intrinsically understand  that, and they distinguish naturally between failures of an individual variety  and of a party as a whole.

The scandals we are talking about in Washington today are not tied to the  individual of Barack Obama. While there’s still more information to be gathered  and more investigations to be done, all indications are that these decisions –  on the AP, on the IRS, on Benghazi – don’t proceed from him. The talk of  impeachment is absurd. The queries of “what did the president know and when did  he know it” will probably end up finding out “just about nothing, and right  around the time everyone else found out.”

Marco Rubio’s remarks the other day illustrate the right and the wrong way to talk about these  scandals. Decrying Chicago politics and a fractured Washington, the failure of  hope and change, is fine and good. But there’s a limit to it, and if done  poorly, the attacks imply that the problem here isn’t the statism, it’s the guy  at the head of it. In other words, that if Obama was really the ethically clean  reform-minded progressive technocrat he styled himself as when running for  office, things would be just fine. In effect, this partisan morality play  approach allows the Democratic Party an escape route which they shouldn’t have:  just firing a bunch of lower level people.

Here’s the hard thing Republicans have to do if they don’t want this crisis  to go to waste: they have to ignore their id, the temptation of the sugar high  of partisan point-scoring. They must willfully set aside Obama’s presence in the  fray, leaving the short term personalized attacks on the table, and go after the  much bigger prize. Obama isn’t running for office again. Liberalism is. Making  this about him is a short term boost to the pleasure center of the conservative  brain. Making this about the inherent falsehood of the progressive project will  help conservatism win.

The point is that these scandals cut at the core conceit of Obama’s ideology:  the healthy and enduring confidence of big government to be good government. As  technological capabilities advance and the scope of government expands, the  types of domestic scandals we’re seeing here are only going to increase in  frequency and invasiveness, with personal information shared more frequently,  easier for even low level bureaucrats to acquire and manipulate. At the same  time, Americans are becoming increasingly skeptical and cynical about their  public institutions, with their trust in the federal government at historic lows. They distrust the agencies and  bureaucrats even as the politicians of our age are investing more and more power  in them.

Today, the media, the Obama administration, and David  Axelrod are undertaking the task that conservatives could not: illustrating  with each passing day that the progressive approach to modern governance and  policy is inherently flawed and that vast governments are ripe for abuse. What  we are seeing from the IRS and the DOJ is not something new, nor does it  represent a perverse approach to benign bureaucracy: it is the inevitable consequence of an approach which puts mechanisms in place and then assumes they will not be  used for ill. You should expect government to go as far as it can, whenever it  can, in any ways that it can, toward the full exploitation of the power made  available to it. Expecting government to behave otherwise is to expect the  scorpion not to sting the frog.

The progressive answer to this is more rules and regulators, more agencies  and safeguards and accountability projects. Republicans should recognize this  intervention for the ridiculousness it is – creating more federal entities to  watch over federal entities – and focus their arguments instead on the only  solution which will actually work: removing power from the federal government  and returning it to the states or the people. The only way to ensure that  government doesn’t abuse a power is to make sure it doesn’t have this power in  the first place.

When this period of scandal draws to a close, if the idea still survives that  a more competent and ethical president would be able to effectively govern a $4  trillion bureaucracy, it will be a sign Republicans have failed. They can  succeed by ignoring the tempting bait of making this about the president they  despise, and focusing instead on the false philosophy of expansive government  which represents the true danger to the American experiment. Doing so will  require them to go against their own short-term viewpoint, so prevalent in  recent years, and look instead to the long game.

[First posted at Real Clear Politics]

Benjamin Domenech

Benjamin Domenech (bdomenech@heartland.org) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute. Domenech... (read full bio)