I realize, of course, that rebuking politicians for acts of hypocrisy is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. Nevertheless, in recent days we have seen some particularly egregious behavior on both sides of the partisan divide.
Take Barack Obama, for instance. When his tenure was one day old, he promised that "my administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government." But in key national security court cases, he has since echoed the Bush administration stance on secrecy. And now, in June, he has violated his transparency pledge in at least two noteworthy instances.
Last Thursday Obama abruptly dismissed a federal inspector general - Gerald Walpin, a watchdog inherited from the Bush administration. He offered only the vaguest reasons for the firing, saying only that he had lost confidence in Walpin. But Walpin supplied his own, claiming publicly that he was canned because, among other unfair reasons, he'd authored a report severely criticizing a federal program run by a key Obama supporter, ex-NBA star and current Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson.
The problem was, Obama's vague explanation didn't meet the legal requirements for transparency. A new federal law is designed to protect the independence of the government's designated watchdogs; under its provisions, Congress is supposed to get 30 days notice in advance of an inspector general's dismissal - coupled with a specified cause for the firing.
Obama violated the 30-day requirement, and his legal counsel didn't offer any substantive reasons for the firing until late Tuesday of this week - and only because the White House came under fire from Claire McCaskill, the Democratic senator who had sponsored the inspector general law. She publicly stated that, under the law, "'loss of confidence' is not a sufficient reason."
Maybe Walpin deserved to be fired; the White House now says he was dispatched for "confused, disoriented behavior," and for being "unduly disruptive." Walpin has also been rebuked as overzealous by the U.S. attorney for Northern California, a Republican appointee. Personnel issues are always sensitive, and often contentious. But my point here is that Obama, by violating two key provisions in the transparency law, made it look like he had something to hide. If nothing else, that's bad politics.
And speaking of bad politics, Obama is now echoing Bush by keeping secret the names that appear on the White House visitor logs. An Obama spokesman argued the other day that a president ought to be free to conduct secret meetings "such as an elected official interviewing for an administration position, or an ambassador coming for a discussion on issues that would affect international negotiations."
The problem is that the Bush team made that same claim - only to be rebuked, twice, in federal court. This past winter, in fact, a federal judge rejected the Bush argument that releasing White House logs would impede the president's ability to perform his constitutional duties. The judge said that theoretical impediment was outweighed by the importance of the Freedom of Information Act.
Meanwhile, I seem to recall that Obama, as a senator, used to criticize the Bush team for hiding the names on the visitor logs (Obama, several years ago: "When big oil companies are invited into the White House for secret energy meetings, it’s no wonder they end up with billions in tax breaks.") His switcheroo smacks of hypocrisy.
And speaking of hypocrisy, the congressional Republicans came up with their own classic switcheroo earlier this week. The stench on this one is enough to curl the nostrils.
Remember how the GOP spent years claiming that any Democrat who voted against Iraq/Afghanistan war funding was, by definition, "against the troops?" The Republicans loved that rhetorical construct. Last fall, Cindy McCain assailed Obama for voting against a war funding bill, declaring that the Democratic candidate had cast "a vote against the troops." Back in 2006, when war funding was on the table, Oklahoma congressman Tom Cole, a high-ranking party leader, warned Democrats that "this is a vote about our willingness to support our servicemen and women." When war funding came up in 2005, Cole warned that a No vote was tantamount to opposing the troops and therefore "an immoral thing to do." In 2004, after John Kerry famously voted against that year's war-funding measure, the National Review stated, "John Kerry chose not to support the troops."
Yet this past Tuesday, there was another vote on war funding, this time in the House...and guess what: 170 out of 175 Republicans voted No.
Oh no, the Republicans said, our votes should not be characterized as being "against the troops." They said they had a legitimate reason for opposing the $106-billion money package. They said they didn't like how the Democrats had snuck in $5 billion in new bucks for the International Monetary Fund...so they voted No on the whole thing; as one Republican strategist reportedly explained, "This was a vote for fiscal discipline."
Let's set aside the fact that, when the Republicans ran the House under Bush, they had about as much fiscal discipline as Bernie Madoff. Let's set aside the fact that the new IMF money is being earmarked for poor nations seeking to cope with the global fiscal crisis - "thus inhibiting the growth of terrorist networks," as Defense secretaary Robert Gates recently testified. Let's even set aside the fact that the new IMF money totals a mere 4.7 percent of the entire war-funding package.
Here's the point: Back when the Republicans controlled the chamber and the war-funding process, they would typically tack on provisions that had nothing to do with the military; in 2006, for instance, they inserted $4 billion for farm programs and close to another billion for a railroad. And if any Democrat objected to these extra provisions, they'd still be tagged as "against the troops." Their choice was to swallow the whole package, or risk being smeared as soft on the soldiers. The ruling Republicans didn't do nuance.
I question whether the Democrats will return the favor in the 2010 House elections and assail those 170 Republicans for voting "against the troops." It's hard for me to imagine that the Democrats would adopt the GOP's simplistic rhetorical frame; on the other hand, they might simply want to quote Peter King, the moderate New York GOP congressman who refused to join the GOP flip-flop on war funding.
King told Politico the other day: "The American Legion supported the bill, for God sakes. If I'm marching in the Fourth of July parade and the local American Legion guy asks me why I didn't vote for the troops, what am I going to say, 'I didn't want money to go to the IMF'? He doesn't even know what the IMF is!"
But the bottom line is that the war-funding bill passed the House anyway, by a margin of 24 votes. It's fortunate these days that even when the GOP wishes to engage in a collective act of hyprocrisy, the wheels of government can still grind.