Abuse of power may be a bipartisan affliction, but what a pathetic scene this White House makes. Whether the scandals now besetting President Barack Obama's administration scuttle his second-term agenda or merely delay his plans, the bigger question is what all of this tells us about the size, scope and underlying legitimacy of our government today.
Obama's underlings continue to spin away the murders of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three embassy staffers in Libya last year. "Benghazi happened a long time ago," White House spokesman Jay Carney said two weeks ago, even as this administration never misses a chance to blame George W. Bush for its own mishaps.
His attorney general, meanwhile, spent Wednesday assuring Congress he has no idea what's going on at the Department of Justice. Did Eric Holder's agents even bother asking the Associated Press for its cooperation before they swept up months' worth of phone records from 20 reporters as part of a leak investigation? "I don't know," Holder said, over and over. "I was recused from the case." Not terribly reassuring, is it?
Then Obama professed outrage over revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative tea party groups for extraordinary and extraordinarily inappropriate scrutiny. He sacked acting IRS Director Steven Miller, although it turns out Miller was leaving the job next month anyway.
Without question, the IRS abused its power to intimidate the president's political enemies. IRS officials admitted as much with their public apologies and an inspector general's report. The question remains how far it all went. CNN reported that a couple of "rogue agents" in Cincinnati are getting the blame for the whole mess, as if that resolves anything. Why do they still have jobs?
It's a well-worn trope on the left that conservatives have gone out of their way over the past 40 years to delegitimize government in order to undermine Americans' faith in progressive programs, the welfare state and all the great things government does. They'll tell scary stories about Charles and David Koch, or they'll dust off Grover Norquist's ancient line about shrinking government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."
Of the countless examples of this argument, perhaps the best well, certainly the most recent comes from Obama himself. Addressing Ohio State University's commencement earlier this month, the president made his case for the virtues of collective government action. Then he offered a warning.
"Unfortunately," he said, "you've grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that's at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They'll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner."
Talk about bad timing.
"You should reject these voices," the president continued. "Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can't be trusted."
Who is this "we" about whom the president speaks? Is it the elected official or the career bureaucrat? Of course they can't be trusted. They prove it every day, and again this week.
And although our "experiment in self-rule" isn't necessarily a sham, Obama's airy description surely is. Self-rule doesn't mean filling out umpteen forms for Obamacare, or letting a federal bureaucrat dictate how you can use your private property, or acceding to thousands upon thousands of incomprehensible rules and regulations, or getting another pat down at the airport. The proper word for that isn't self-rule, but subservience.
Americans don't need the Kochs or Norquist or other such hobgoblins to convince them of the mendacious incompetence or incompetent mendacity of their government. Please. Government is doing a fine job delegitimizing itself at every level.
True legitimacy requires the consent of the governed. Every time a county sheriff rousts a kid from her roadside lemonade stand for want of a business license or a health inspector's permit, government delegitimizes itself.
Every time a public school suspends a child for using a Pop Tart, a pencil or his own index finger as a "gun," in compliance with some mindless zero-tolerance policy, government delegitimizes itself.
When an IRS agent demands to know what books you're reading, or wants the names of the people with whom you associate freely, or requires you to disclose "the content of your organization's prayers" (as the IRS asked of one pro-life group in Iowa), government delegitimizes itself. This is the same IRS that will be empowered to enforce the Affordable Care Act next year. Before long, it won't be just your reading materials or prayers they're auditing.
With every abuse and usurpation, petty or large, government undermines its own legitimacy and public trust. People will put up with a lot, and there is danger in going too far the other way. Conservatives believe "that government is best which governs least." But we aren't anarchists. We need government, but it must be limited. It must be accountable.
The way back to legitimacy isn't more "oversight," and it isn't right-wing fantasizing about impeaching this pathetic president. The way back is less government and more consent of the governed. But that may simply be too much to ask.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.