Cross posted from Pruning Shears.
We’ve had three big stories this week, each showing how the right plays the scandal game better than the left. Of the three, one is a non-scandal (Benghazi), one is a minor scandal with the potential to turn into more (IRS),1 and one is an honest-to-God scandal right now (AP). Republicans don’t bother with such fine distinctions though, and that’s why they are better at playing it than Democrats: when they get something they can run with, they do.
The targeting of Tea Party groups by the IRS is a good example.2 It was wrong of the IRS to target them, but at the end of the day what it all amounted to was more paperwork and delay. It’s much less onerous – and much less overtly political – than the actual audit the IRS did of the NAACP when it was critical of George Bush.
Yet the Democrats basically sat on their hands for that, and the best they can muster now is a weaksauce “oh yeah? Well why weren’t you outraged back then, GOP?” Republicans stand up for their allies in real time – they don’t sit back and watch them get pummeled. They don’t quietly file those episodes away, holding them as examples to be thrown back as countercharges down the road if need be. They seize the moment and take as many swings as they can.
Similarly, the business with the AP has Republicans once again schooling Democrats on this not-difficult-to-grasp aspect of politics. Any Democrats tempted to decry some Republicans’ newfound concern over the surveillance state should reflect instead on why their own party declined to weigh in as forcefully during the Bush years.3
It isn’t even worth pointing out that all these trips to the fainting couch are hypocrisy because the right was silent on it during the Bush years. They don’t pretend to adhere to a logically consistent set of principles; they just want to go after Obama. He wasn’t president in 2004, so they weren’t concerned then. Now he is, so they are.
The righteous indignation of media outlets, on the other hand, is a bit hard to take. There’s been a great deal of hyperventilating about how this is such a big deal because of its chilling effect on the press, and in case you hadn’t noticed the press is singled out in the First Amendment for protection!. Of course, in that very same clause – and before the press is mentioned, incidentally – the First Amendment prohibits abridging freedom of speech for anyone.4
And there’s certainly been a lot of free speech abridgement going on for the last twelve years! It isn’t hard to find, say, a catalog of sins produced by the Patriot Act (personal favorite), or reports on the wholesale seizure of ordinary citizens’ phone records (and by the way, Congress would have to grant retroactive immunity to the phone companies who cooperated with the AP seizure for the current episode to sink to the lows of the FISA Amendments Act), or the indiscriminate collection of Internet traffic, or the thuggish repression of media outlets that are not the right kind of nice, respectable media outlets.5
These kinds of outrageous abuses have been going on for years, yet the national press corps never bothered to rouse itself to the kind of adversarial pushback we are now seeing.6 It’s one thing to spy on the common rabble or disreputable operations like WikiLeaks, evidently, but when that treatment gets turned on reporters who thought they were comfortably embedded with government officials: First Amendment!
I’ve been reading The Operators by Michael Hastings, and one passage towards the end has a striking relevance in the current situation. He describes the fallout in Washington over his Rolling Stone article on Stanley McChrystal which resulted in McChrystal’s dismissal. He refers to a “schmoozy relationship” between the political and media class and the icy reception he received from journalists in the capitol. Apparently he violated some vague but powerful etiquette that requires journalists to not report anything newsworthy (extended excerpt here.)
The rule of thumb is: don’t make waves. You’ll have a good gig as long as you don’t rock the boat. But that is exactly what the phone record seizure does. It’s a rude awakening for any reporters who thought they were on the same team as the officials they cover. The bureaucratic inertia of an ever-expanding intelligence gathering apparatus has combined with this administration’s maniacal pursuit of leakers to produce a very serious breach of etiquette in the village. It may have been illegal, who knows, but it was unquestionably gauche. It upset some very comfortable relations. That, in the end, may be a greater transgression among media elites than any violation of the Constitution.