Obama’s Scandals Do Not Mean Liberalism Has Failed

Big government is not the same thing as bad government.

It was to be expected: The recent round of scandals surrounding President Obama has prompted conservatives to a chorus of every ideologue’s favorite rallying cry: “I told you so!”

What we were told in this case is not merely that President Obama is a poor leader—though there’s an element of that in the recent schadenfreude. Instead, what conservatives are happy to proclaim these days is that the Obama scandals—and the abuse of power they perhaps portend—prove that liberalism is wrong and conservatives are right.

Small, limited government is the way to go, they say. Big government is too easy to abuse.

My conservative friend and colleague Ben Boychuk made the case in his most recent column for the Sacramento Bee. Government under Obama, he says, “is doing a fine job of delegitimizing itself at every level.”

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.

I don’t buy it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve recently written about how liberals need to do a better job of appreciating conservative insights on the nature of big government. Conservatives, I said, are “often better at recognizing that big bureaucracies can become oppressive … they believe, not without reason, that bigger government can create problems and badly affect individuals just because of the insidious ways bureaucracies tend to try to claim more power without offering more accountability.” I still believe that.

Problem is, I also believe that government can and should do certain things to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people. Stuff that conservatives largely don’t like or often oppose. But it’s also stuff that doesn’t appear connected to the Obama scandals.

You see, conservatives want smaller government for its own sake. That’s why every bad government act becomes an argument for smaller government. Liberals don’t want bigger government for its own sake. We want it to do stuff. And so we have to be somewhat choosier in how to connect the dots.

For example, I think government should provide a safety net. I think that safety net helped prevent our recent recession from being much worse. And I think the existence of that safety net has nothing to do one way or the other with the IRS scrutiny of Tea Party non-profit groups.

I think government should provide reasonable, not overly burdensome rules for the marketplace. I’m hopeful that the Dodd-Frank bill regulating banks will curb the tendency of financial institutions to gorge on debt and then fail, taking the economy with them. But I’m pretty sure that the Department of Justice’s investigation of national security leaks has nothing at all to do with corporate regulation.

I like that the government regulates fuel efficiency, both to keep our air breathable and to conserve our limited natural resources. I like that government makes it difficult for companies to dump their pollution in our rivers to poison the rest of us. I like that the government ensures minimal standards of workplace safety. And I’m pretty sure the possible non-scandal in Benghazi sheds no light on the worthiness of any of those activities.

The point being: Obama’s so-called scandals tell us very little about the right size and roles of government. They might tell us that government can be abused, and that we should always be on guard against that abuse, but they don’t really indicate that a smaller government would prevent that abuse.

In the limited government many conservatives say they desire, there almost certainly would still be an agency that collects revenues to run the government. (Certainly the Founders didn’t want the national government to rely on the states for revenues.) There would almost certainly still be a concept of “national security” and attempts to limit the spread of classified information. And there would almost certainly be U.S. embassies abroad, staffed with civil servants used to intra-office scuffling over issues of blame. The scandals of Barack Obama? Could have been the scandals of Mitt Romney with very little adjustment.

Republicans, moreover, have been known to abuse the levers of government themselves. Think the U.S. attorney firings. Think warrantless wiretapping. Think the Scooter Libby Leak Case. Think Iran-Contra. Think Watergate. Limited-government principles didn’t seem to make a difference to the GOP in those cases, did they?

Given the bipartisan responsibility for all of the abuses named so far, ideological fixes seem hard to come by—unless we take the hard-core libertarian route and virtually eliminate the national government altogether. It’s doubtful, though, that most Americans would actually want to live that way. Or could. Certainly, even most self-described conservatives don’t, even though they co-opt the language of libertarianism.

The answer to these foundational debates, then, would be this: A recognition that government—like all humans and human institutions—is capable  of both powerful goods and monstrous wrongs. Let’s dedicate ourselves to preserving the best, and guarding against the worst. It’s messy, and lacking the clean, easy vision of simply chopping government off at its knees. But there’s no perfect answer—just a range of imperfect choices.