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Michael Gerson: Government's heavy hand

BY MICHAEL GERSON Published: May 18, 2013

So, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration has investigated the IRS investigation of conservative groups. And the FBI has launched a criminal investigation of the IRS. And the State Department's Office of Inspector General is investigating the Accountability Review Board that investigated the administration's response to the Benghazi terror attack. And House committees including Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, Judiciary, Oversight and Government Reform, Ways and Means and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence are variously investigating the Benghazi matter, the IRS and the Justice Department investigation of The Associated Press.

And all the lawyers rejoiced.

If there is any thread that unites these scandals, it is government heavy-handedness. Seizing the phone records of, say, three editors and reporters would constitute a leak investigation. Seizing the phone records of perhaps 100 is a fishing expedition and a form of intimidation. “They're sending a clear message to our sources,” says National Journal's Ron Fournier. “Don't embarrass the administration or we're coming after you.'”

The IRS' heightened scrutiny of conservative organizations was not a collection of unfortunate clerical errors. It involved demands, under penalty of perjury, for the “minutes of all board meetings since your creation,” summaries or copies of material passed out at meetings and information on donors. Long IRS silences were punctuated with ultimatums.

It is impossible to predict the course of any scandal. But the immediate effect of this rare alignment of controversies may be in the realm of political ideas. Over the last several decades, Americans have held not just conflicting opinions on government policy but differing visions of government itself. New Dealers saw federal power as essential to correct the fatal defects of capitalism. Lyndon Johnson imagined a Great Society “where the meaning of man's life matches the marvels of man's labor” — releasing the ambitions of government under cover of rhetorical vagueness. Reagan revolutionaries generally saw the federal government as hapless and irresponsible.

President Obama's rhetorical vision of federal power has been positive but limited: It is a friendly benefactor to the middle class, though occasionally forced to get stern with the wealthy. The goal is to “create ladders of opportunity” within a capitalist framework.

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