The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 21
To: Our readers
From: David Freddoso
- Obama’s crisis of competence;
- Hillary’s big interview;
- Senate big picture
Crisis of competence: “Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions – who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.”
This line from President Obama’s first inaugural address has always stood out for conservatives because it clearly refers to them. Obama followed it up with reassurances that these doubting Thomases were wrong, and that events past and future would prove this. He called them cynics and said that with his election, “the ground has shifted beneath them.” At the time, it certainly seemed that way.
But not any longer. And it is Obama’s administration that has changed all of that. That’s not so much an ideological statement as one of practicality. Government is bad at doing most things, but we only get a chance to see it fail when it starts trying to do too much. Witness HealthCare.gov, the stimulus package, and now personal data breaches so enormous that no one can ignore them any more.
Government is not as powerful as Obama would like it to be — and that is a statement of how things simply are, not of how they should be. Events have proven that the scale of Obama’s ambitions was far too large for government’s competence.
Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the area of information technology, whose importance is already enormous and will only grow as the 21st Century progresses. Last week’s announcement of yet another data breach at the Office of Personnel Management is just one more example — and the worst one yet — of just how badly government does the basics, setting aside any thought of grand plans.
The magnitude of this breach is really mind-blowing. It affects 22 million people — more people than live in the entire state of New York, and about one in every ten U.S. adults. And they didn’t just have their Social Security numbers compromised, but much, much more — medical, criminal, residential, and educational histories, fingerprints in many cases, and more. Everyone who had applied for a security clearance was affected, and in some cases their spouses and friends as well.
People who live in Washington are familiar with the sort of information that goes into these background investigations, and it’s quite extensive. It’s actually quite common in D.C. to have the FBI show up at your door to ask questions about a friend who is being considered for any kind of sensitive government position. The information in these files would be incredibly valuable for purposes of foreign espionage against the United States.
This OPM disaster was quite preventable, as the Inspector General had warned last year that the OPM system was an accident waiting to happen. But in government, people don’t act from the same kinds of motivations that private property owners do. That data wasn’t theirs, and they didn’t care about its security enough to make it a priority.
In fact, this is the second such breach at that agency discovered this year — 4.2 million current and former federal employees were affected by am earlier-announced breach. And this new revelation was almost immediately followed by the revelation that the U.S. National Guard suffered a breach as well. Meanwhile, HealthCare.gov, whose early disaster was obvious, continues to lack proper data security, and it was confirmed earlier in the week that IRS officials illegally shared more than 100,000 tax returns with the Justice Department.
None of this speaks to President Obama’s personal failings as a leader — think what you will of him and the low quality of his appointment to head OPM, but this kind of thing will keep happening. Still, the overriding Obama project has been to convince Americans that government can do things. His administration keeps providing evidence to the contrary. After the huge wave of progressive feeling that swept him into office, he has proven that government can do very little well, and he’s done it more convincingly than any conservative or libertarian politician could. This is his crisis of competence and confidence. After Obama leaves office, this era will likely be cited in many arguments that government just isn’t that good at implementing or overseeing grand plans involving data, software development, or industrial planning via subsidy.
Depending on what happens this week with the Iran deal, that could be Obama’s most enduring political legacy.
Hillary Clinton: Clinton’s big CNN interview — her first as a candidate — demonstrates why her campaign has gone to such great lengths to keep her away from interviewers. A defensive Clinton blamed Republicans for most of the problems she created for herself.
She made many untrue statements in the process — for example, that she was not required to turn over her work emails, that there were no rules or regulations against her keeping them private and withholding them for so long, and (although one might quibble that it’s a question of opinion) that voters trust her.
This isn’t the place to dissect these, or her claim that she was not under subpoena (it depends on what the definition of “was” is), but it’s important to note the continuity of Clinton style. The maze of Clinton investigations and allegations became so complex in the late 1990s that it became all too easy for Team Clinton to muddy the waters with factually false statements.
In a similar way, Hillary and her team seem to think that all she has to do under media pressure is state that everything she did to separate her work product from as secretary of State was both legal and ethical (even if it wasn’t), and keep stating it. One potential problem with this is that the Clintons do not control the White House anymore and lack the institutional levers that contributed so much to Bill Clinton’s popularity. After all, he was president and Republicans were trying to remove him from the office. This time, in contrast, Hillary is a private citizen with a large bank account from monetizing government service. Voters (as the polls suggest) already smell a rat, and it’s still only July 2015.
It is unclear whether Clinton’s scandals as known to date can truly sink her in a general election. A lot will depend on the quality of the Republican nominee and whether the mainstream media is willing to continue pursuing these issues in depth as the campaign progresses.
But every time you see or hear about a huge Bernie Sanders event, bear in mind that fear of the potential for Clinton implosion is motivating some of his support. Among those who do not believe Clinton is an honest person, a small but significant share are liberals who will vote for her in November 2016 no matter what. It is not a hopeful sign, but it might not be fatal either.
Big picture: It is still very early, and many races are still taking shape. But there have been a few important developments that make continued GOP control of the Senate more likely.
For one thing, former Sen. Kay Hagan, D, declined to take on Sen. Richard Burr, R. There appears to be no obvious plan B, and that nearly takes North Carolina’s Senate seat off the table.
Democrats have also failed to find any credible alternative to former Rep. Joe Sestak, D, to challenge Sen. Pat Toomey, R, in Pennsylvania. Having defeated Sestak in 2010 and framed himself as a sensible conservative with a moderate streak, Toomey appears to be in a far more comfortable position than anyone would have expected a few years ago.
For another, Republicans got a good matchup in Nevada, where Harry Reid’s handpicked successor, former Attorney General Catherine Cortez-Masto, D, will face Rep. Joe Heck, R, a medical doctor and Army Reserve officer who has held down the state’s swingiest district now since 2011. In offsetting their expected losses elsewhere, this race is a must-win for Republicans, so this recruiting success is a big deal.
Finally, the official entry by Rep. Alan Grayson, D, into Florida’s Democratic primary takes one of the Democrats’ top pickup opportunities and turns it into a much murkier affair. It is nearly impossible to imagine Grayson winning a statewide race, but it is not impossible to imagine him winning his primary — and polls suggest that he is either well ahead of the far more electable Rep. Patrick Murphy, D, or else roughly even with him.
Not everything has gone well for Republicans. For one thing, they have gotten nowhere in finding a strong candidate to run in Colorado against a vulnerable Sen. Michael Bennet, D, and this is bad news in a cycle where pickup opportunities to offset losses are few and far between.
Meanwhile, Republicans still have enough other shaky seats to worry about — in Illinois, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Ohio — that a wave year could return the Senate to the Democrats.
The next big shoe to drop is in the Granite State, where Gov. Maggie Hassan, D, has not yet decided whether to challenge Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R, or to run for re-election. If Hassan stays out of the race, Ayotte is a strong bet for re-election, and it becomes much harder for Democrats to plot a path back to the majority.