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Robert Bennett: Incompetence is not a good defense or a reassuring strategy

Published: Monday, May 27 2013 12:59 p.m. MDT

Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, May 17, 2013. Political scandals have strange ways of causing collateral damage, and Republicans are hoping the furor over federal tax enforcers singling out conservative groups will ensnare their biggest target: President Barack Obamaís health care law. But no one appears to have connected the factual dots yet, and itís unclear whether they will. Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the IRS says ďThere really isnít a tie,This is another effort by the Republicans to essentially try to score political points.Ē (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Charles Dharapak, AP

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There is an old saying, "Bad things come in threes." In recent weeks, the Obama administration has reason to believe that may be true.

First, details about what was really in the initial Central Intelligence Agency reports about what happened in Benghazi came to light, explicitly stating that the attack was linked to a terrorist group with al-Qaida ties. This was, at the very least, a major embarrassment for administration officials who had insisted that the "intelligence community" had told them that the attack was triggered by an insulting video posted on the Internet.

Second, it was disclosed that the Internal Revenue Service had indeed been targeting political groups on the right, deliberately burdening them with intrusive and delaying tactics designed to discourage their legitimate efforts to obtain tax-free status. That was a major embarrassment for administration officials who had been insisting for years that such activities were not going on.

Then it was revealed that the Justice Department had targeted Associated Press reporters and editors for electronic eavesdropping in ways that went well beyond legitimate concerns for national security, in the name of national security. That was a major embarrassment for an administration that says it supports a shield law that would protect reporters from such acts.

Putting this all together, some see grounds for impeachment, saying, "It's worse than Watergate."

I don't think it's that bad. No one knows more about Watergate than Bob Woodward, whose career was made by it, and he said, "This is not Watergate." However, he did describe some people in the Obama administration as "Nixonian," which I take to mean people who are willing to consider lying and a cover-up as acceptable political strategies when dealing with those they consider "enemies."

The administration is dealing with all this by haggling over details and issuing some "it's-not-really-that-bad" sorts of rationalizations, but, quietly, in one-on-one conversations with influential journalists, they are saying, "Hey, guys — we admit it — we screwed up. Cut us some slack; everybody makes mistakes."

Journalists who have been on the receiving end of this effort are calling it "the incompetence defense."

Acknowledging error is salutary but admitting incompetence is hardly reassuring. It also undermines an article of faith of the Democratic Party. Democrats are, after all, the party of government. They trust it, believing it to be the wisest, most benevolent, fairest solver of problems. When they send us a message that says, "We're not bad guys; we're just incompetent," it raises serious doubts about where their government will take us.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, understands this. He has described the coming of Obamacare as "a major train wreck." He obviously has no ideological quarrel with its provisions; he was one of its principal architects. Instead, he is warning his fellow Democrats about the importance of competence in its implementation.

Along with their willingness to lie and cover up to achieve their political goals, "Nixonians" are also usually incompetent. Breaking into the Democratic offices in the Watergate building was a stupid thing to do; so was the use of the IRS to harass right-wing groups and the Justice Department to snoop on the AP.

I would say to President Obama, "If there are people in your administration whose actions are hurting you, don't protect them because of their loyalty; fire them because of their incompetence — now." If Nixon had done that right after the Watergate break-in occurred, Woodward would not have won a Pulitzer Prize and Gerry Ford would not have been president.

Incompetence is neither a good defense nor a reassuring strategy.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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