As your kindergarten teacher probably told you, two wrongs do not make a right. But the discrepancy in reactions to wrongs does, indeed, show how Washington so often serves the interests of the political right.
That’s one of the big – if deliberately ignored – takeaways from the reaction to news that the Internal Revenue Service allegedly targeting conservative organizations for extra scrutiny in their larger review of political groups’ tax exempt status. In the last few days, the allegations have generated a wave of national headlines, a congressional investigation, federal legislation and ever-louder calls for impeachment.
Considering the gravity of the allegations against the Obama IRS from the Treasury Department’s inspector general, congressional scrutiny is certainly warranted. However, there’s just one problem: most of the lawmakers and pundits today decrying the use of public resources against a White House’s political opponents had little – if anything – to say about equally troubling revelations about the Bush administration’s deployment of public resources against its opponents. In fact, conservatives said so little back then that Fox News apparently doesn’t even know (or is pretending not to know) the Bush administration used the IRS in the same way the Obama adminstration allegedly did.
And here’s the even more incredible thing: the Bush cabal didn’t just use the IRS for its political hackery – it mounted a full-scale government-wide assault on its enemies, marshaling disparate agencies in its smear efforts.
Bush’s use of the IRS was but one part of that larger assault. As my Salon colleague Alex Seitz-Wald notes today in greater detail, in 2005, Bush’s IRS began what became an extensive two-year investigation into a Pasadena church after an orator dared to speak out against President Bush’s Iraq War. Not coincidentally, the Los Angeles Times reports that the church targeted just so happened to be “one of Southern California’s largest and most liberal congregations.” That IRS church audit came a year after it launched a near-identical attack on the NAACP after the civil rights organization criticized various Bush administration policies.
That is not where the story ends, however. The Bush administration’s crusade against its enemies moved from the IRS into the Secret Service.
Under the Republican president, that law enforcement agency was repeatedly deployed to physically block suspected antiwar activists from attending public presidential events. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, the scheme eventually targeted some peaceful antiwar activists for arrest for the alleged crime of “holding up small handwritten protest signs outside the designated zone” of free speech (yes, the Bush White House cemented the precedent that the right to dissent is no longer a fundamental right, but is instead only allowed in certain “free speech zones”). Ultimately, in a case dealing with a man who was arrested for simply telling Vice President Dick Cheney that his “policies on Iraq are disgusting,” the Republican-dominated Supreme Court upheld the Bush administration’s use of “retaliatory arrests” against the administration’s ideological critics.
Then, in 2010, we learned that Bush’s targeting operation was also operating inside the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Recounting findings from the Justice Department’s Inspector General, the Washington Post reported that “the FBI improperly investigated some left-leaning U.S. advocacy groups after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks…citing cases in which agents put activists on terrorist watch lists even though they were planning nonviolent civil disobedience.”
A year later, we learned that along with the IRS, Secret Service and FBI, the Bush administration may have also been using the Central Intelligence Agency against its political enemies. As the New York Times reported, “A former Central Intelligence Agency officer who was a top counterterrorism official during the administration of President George W. Bush, said the White House at least twice asked intelligence officials to gather sensitive information” on prominent Iraq War critic Juan Cole. That story had an eerie similarity to the Bush administration’s effort to out CIA operative Valerie Plame as retribution for her husband’s criticism of that same war.
Unlike the noisy outrage that met today’s allegations of IRS misconduct under President Obama, these earlier – and well-documented – revelations of systemic IRS, Secret Service, FBI and CIA misconduct were met with a collective shrug of the shoulders in Washington. Sure, a few newspapers wrote about them, and a few Democratic lawmakers tried to raise questions about the Bush administration’s actions, but compared to today’s sound and fury over the IRS allegations, there was veritable silence. Indeed, as alluded to before, so little outrage was voiced about this kind of thing during the Bush years that a Fox News’ headline this week summarizing a Karl Rove interview blared: “What if IRS Under President Bush targeted liberal groups?” – as if that never actually happened…even though it most certainly did.
What explains this obvious double standard in the reactions to Bush era and Obama era misconduct? Partisanship, expectations and ideological bias.
In terms of partisanship, Republicans now screaming bloody murder over the IRS allegations clearly don’t care about the principles of equal protection, nonpartisan public services or impartial governance. We know this because most of them had nothing to say about the Bush administration’s actions against the GOP’s ideological opponents. In the context of that record, the GOP is really saying it is outraged when government resources are aimed at its friends, but more than happy to have those resources aimed at its enemies.
That context, though, hasn’t been publicly referenced by most Democrats. Indeed, other than Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), most Democratic lawmakers have not dared to mention that the problem of politicized government goes back many years.
That gets to expectations and ideological bias – simply put, the expectation in a Washington where both parties and most media outlets tilt to the right is that conservative groups should never be treated the same way liberal groups so often are. Why? Because conservative causes (say, the anti-tax movement) tend to be aligned with the interests of the transpartisan moneyed establishment while liberal causes (say, the anti-war movement) tend to be at odds with those interests.
Thus, when conservative groups happen to be treated like liberal groups, the Washington Outrage Machine turns the noise up to 11 – even though when liberal groups were targeted, that Outrage Machine remained dormant. And with today’s national press corps reoriented around amplifying – rather than challenging – power, this double standard is then predictably reflected in a corresponding discrepancy in coverage.
Taken together, the lesson should be straightforward: according to Washington, politicized government is perfectly fine when it is punishing liberal forces that challenge the status quo, but totally outrageous when it is targeting conservative groups that preserve the status quo.
Neither should be acceptable, of course. But that truism is ignored by a hypocritical political culture whose unquestioned assumptions so obviously favor the right.