Saturday, April 07, 2007

Corrupt to the Core

In order to fully appreciate the depths of the prosecutor scandal, I think it's necessary to place it into the general context of how this administration views the federal government. In that respect the new scandal involving the GSA provides considerable insight. The General Services Administration is the agency tasked with providing material support to the federal bureaucracy. They provide buildings, transportation, equipment and supplies of all sorts to the various federal agencies. It is a massive organization with a $60 billion annual budget. In January top administrator of the GSA, Lurita Doan, hosted a meeting for GSA appointees at which one of Karl Rove's deputies, J. Scott Jennings, made a powerpoint presentation on the Republican strategy in the 2008 congressional elections, identifying the hot races and the party's prospects for success. Doan then asked Jennings, "How can we use GSA to help our candidates in the next election?"

This appears, as the article notes, to be a blatant violation of the Hatch Act, but it's not so much the legalities that interest me in this issue. I can't help but view this administration's approach as embodying the long-standing hostility of certain parts of the Republican party (not least of which being the libertarian wing of it) towards government. While he certainly didn't invent this meme, Ronald Reagan probably popularized it more effectively than anyone else. Government, we came to understand, is the problem, not the solution. I'm certainly open to arguments that the government often does things poorly or takes on tasks that are not well suited to it, but when you go from specific criticisms to a generalized anti-government dogma, I can't help but think you eventually, inevitably, end up with the Bush administration.

If you spend all of your time out of government vilifying government, how can we expect you to have any respect for the institutional integrity of the government once you're in charge? If it's all bullshit anyway, why not appoint a horse and pony show administrator to head a critical government agency? Why not use the resources of government agencies to attack your political opponents? Why not use them to sell favors to fatten your campaign coffers?

Government, whether we like it or not, prefer it big or small, is a necessity. We'll never do away with it altogether. And for all our checks and balances there can be only so much democratic and institutional oversight. Plenty of constitutional governments have failed in the past (and we're witnessing one failing in real time in Iraq), not because their constitutional structure was faulty, but because that is only one part of the equation. Another part is a culture of respect for the traditions and integrity of the institutions of government. Much of what happens in our government comes down to the degree to which federal employees feel the weight of public trust on their shoulders, and the responsibility instilled by the tradition of the offices they hold. The Republican tactic of promoting a deep suspicion and overpowering cynicism about everything related to the government destroys that culture and is now destroying the institutional integrity of our government. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. They have ended up with the government they always thought we had (but in reality didn't).

I think this is a large part of why Barack Obama excites me and Hillary Clinton terrifies me. It's going to take someone like Obama to rebuild public trust in the integrity of the federal government. We're going to need a visionary and a statesman, and someone of substantial personal integrity. Clinton, perhaps more than any other candidate running on either side of the aisle, will serve only to deepen cynicism about government. She is just the sort of plasticky, blow-dried, political-consultant-run marionette that inspires distrust of the entire political system. The Bush administration has dealt our constitutional system a serious blow. To have it followed by another administration that only deepens the growing chasm of mistrust between the American people and their government could, I think, be disastrous.

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