Going czar crazy

Kay Bailey Hutchison is worried about the number of czars employed in the Obama administration

Topics: Barack Obama, War Room,

Lately, conservatives haven’t shown much of a knack for the facts. The healthcare reform debate has been marred by bogus accusations of death panels and the myth that reform will include a government mandate that taxpayers foot the bill for abortions. Now, some Republicans are extending that same treatment to the personnel decisions in President Obama’s administration.

On Sunday in the Washington Post, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, wrote a column warning of the number of informal policy “czars” employed by the White House. Hutchison asserted:

A few of them have formal titles, but most are simply known as “czars.” They hold unknown levels of power over broad swaths of policy. Under the Obama administration, we have an unprecedented 32 czar posts (a few of which it has yet to fill), including a “car czar,” a “pay czar” and an “information czar.” There are also czars assigned to some of the broadest and most consequential topics in policy, including health care, terrorism, economics and key geographic regions.

The Op-Ed has generated a great deal of backlash from liberals — and justifiably so. Hutchison’s use of the word “unprecedented” is completely misleading. The Bush administration employed numerous czars, and yet Hutchison makes no mention of this fact in her piece. Additionally, as Amanda Terkel points out at Think Progress, all of the so-called czars in Obama’s administration actually have formal titles; Obama has only referred to one member of his administration as a czar. It’s right-wing commentators like Sean Hannity who are actually invoking the term.

And there may be a reason. The right has seized on the term “czars” so aggressively that it’s hard not to read it as an attempt to play up allegations that Obama is some kind of communist. In July, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. wrote his own piece in the Post, alleging that Obama was creating a “virtual army of ‘czars,’” adding, “At last count, there were at least 32 active czars that we knew of, meaning the current administration has more czars than Imperial Russia.”

“Russia” is the word that gives away the strategy. After all, they were all commies over there! But the use of the term in this way must be baffling to anyone with even a basic familiarity with high-school world history. Russia’s czars were in no way communist. They were actually overthrown during the Bolshevik Revolution, which led to the eventual formation of the Soviet Union. Russian czars assumed the throne through a hereditary monarchy and ruled with an iron fist; Obama’s czars get appointed by the White House and have no direct authority over anything the federal government does (Cabinet officials, not the czars, are in charge of how to implement policy). The thinking from Republicans here seems to be that equating any Russian word with Obama is enough to prove he’s a secret communist.

Hutchison is in a tough fight with incumbent Rick Perry for the Republican nomination for governor of Texas. So her piece seems like a blatant attempt to appeal to the same voters in the state who liked Perry’s suggestion that Texas could secede from the United States — i.e., the hardcore right-wing base.

But that shouldn’t excuse the unfounded claims in Hutchison’s piece, nor as Matt Yglesias observes, the Post’s decision to print it. Yglesias writes:

The article in question manages to not so much as mention that all of our recent presidents have employed “czars.” I find it completely impossible to believe that Washington Post editors are unaware that George W. Bush employed “czars.” I find it completely impossible to believe that Washington Post editos [sic] have completely forgotten the administration of a man who was still president as recently as nine months ago. And I find it completely impossible to believe Washington Post editors don’t grasp the relevance of this fact to assessing the credibility of Hutchison’s complaint. Her use of phrases such as “unprecedented” to describe Obama’s czar-related conduct, combined with the total lack of context, is transparently designed to mislead the audience. And the Washington Post decided to print it!

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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