Conservatives have long viewed Washington as one giant, inevitable disaster waiting to happen. For conservative political strategists, part of our job is helping to frame that eventual disaster as President Barack Obama's fault. But conservatives should resist the temptation to be too Obama-centric in their criticisms of Washington's recent scandals.
Yes, a president is in charge of, and ultimately responsible for, the federal government. But while Mr. Obama may be a tempting foil in the short term, especially with midterm elections on the horizon, it's important to not lose sight of longer-term objectives.
Take Benghazi, for example.
Mr. Obama has a little over 1,300 days left in office and will never appear on a ballot again. But Hillary Clinton might. And it was Mrs. Clinton's State Department that ignored repeated warnings about increased terrorist activity and weak security in Benghazi, Libya. It was Mrs. Clinton's aides, acting under orders from "building leadership," who forced the falsification of Benghazi talking points and sought to silence and punish a high-ranking career diplomat with the courage to ask questions and speak out.
Was Mr. Obama directly involved in the Benghazi failure and its subsequent cover-up? Thanks to whistleblowers and congressional hearings, we may soon find out. But while assigning blame to Mr. Obama may generate the biggest headlines now, demonstrating Mrs. Clinton's failures could yield the greatest dividends later.
As with any scandal, it's important to look below the surface. Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder may be the public faces of Washington today, but every scandal and failure also helps validate the conservative belief that big government itself is the true problem. Government can do some good, like its constitutional purposes of keeping us safe, maintaining infrastructure and providing a due process-based legal system. But government — Washington in particular — has become so bloated, bureaucratic and incompetent that it often fails at even the most fundamental responsibilities.
Are conservatives correct that Mr. Obama has made government worse and even more inefficient? Absolutely, but Mr. Obama himself isn't nearly as worrisome or consequential as his policies or the expanded government he'll leave behind. Which leads to another reason conservatives should resist the temptation to make any scandals solely about this president: Unpopular with half the country and beloved by the other half, Mr. Obama is polarizing. Washington incompetence is not.
Try finding an American eager to defend the IRS. But despite having more than 100,000 employees nationwide, the IRS has only two political appointees. The rest are every taxpayer's favorite — government bureaucrats.
Is it fair to assume the IRS' targeting of conservative-leaning groups was politically motivated and possibly even directed by Mr. Obama? Yes. Should Americans be suspicious that all that fuss made by the Obama campaign last year about Mitt Romney's tax returns was aided by illegally obtained personal information? Yes, just as they should be worried about the role the IRS will play implementing the Obama health care law.
But although Mr. Obama is part of the problem, it's the unchecked power of government bureaucracy that's even worse. The power of the IRS to target political opponents, or the Justice Department to monitor reporters, or the deadly consequences of State Department incompetence in Benghazi is what's truly scary.
Of all the current scandals, the Department of Justice obtaining phone records of AP reporters might prove to be the most damaging. Now that they've personally become the victims of government overreach, perhaps the press will start digging deeper and asking tougher questions about Benghazi, the IRS and other issues. By targeting the AP, whose reporting is republished and broadcast by thousands of local newspapers, websites, and TV and radio stations, the Obama administration might have waved a red flag in front of a very dangerous and suddenly engaged bull.
Don't fret, conservatives. President Obama promises plenty of opportunities to attack.
Even fellow Democrats are calling his health care law a "train wreck." Benghazi and the IRS scandal are still unfolding, and time will tell if they go straight to the top. And based on history, there will be even more second-term scandals to come.
But don't lose sight of the big picture. If conservatives' long-term objective is reining in big government, allow me to paraphrase and suggest the advice of Mr. Obama's own former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel: Never let a scandal go to waste. Just remember that our primary enemy is Washington and big government. In the long run, and contrary to his own sense of consequence, Mr. Obama is secondary.