In my world, there’s a breed of person known as a “process liberal.” This is someone—at a foundation, say—who believes in process uber alles. There are lots of different kinds of liberalism, just as there are different kinds of conservatism, and process liberalism has always struck me as rooted in two developments in liberalism that started happening in the early-20th-century: first, the professionalization of the social sciences and what you might call the “idea class”; and second, the establishment in the law of civil liberties, a notion that didn’t really exist per se until around that time (the ACLU was founded in 1920). To this kind of liberalism, when problems and complications arise, there’s a process to look into them, and there are responsible, competent, well-intended people overseeing it. This is a very different liberalism, for example, from people whose beliefs were shaped in the first instance by economics (e.g., me).
Barack Obama is a process liberal. A law and social-science liberal (much more, it has always seemed, than an economics liberal). If he’d never gone into politics, he’d be a law professor, as he was; and, I’m guessing, after a certain number of years, chairman of the board of a major Chicago foundation. And if the CEO of the foundation in question did something wrong and needed to be relieved of his post, Obama would let the process play out, even if it took two years, which, in foundation-world, is about how long these things take.
So now we have this situation involving the Justice Department and the Associated Press, news of which broke last night. DoJ, after presumably subpoenaing phone companies, obtained logs of outgoing calls (numbers called only—there was no wiretapping) made by some AP reporters and editors involved in producing a story that appeared in May 2012 about how a plot by a Yemeni terrorist to bomb an airliner was foiled.
AP actually held the story for a few days at the time at the administration’s request, and then published only when it got the green light. But even so, the administration wanted to know who AP’s source was. And so the subpoena—extremely far-reaching as these things go, and possibly sought in violation of the guidelines governing such action.
Well, this is a big deal. This one isn’t ginned up by Republicans. Oh, they’re bound to start in on it today. They’re total hypocrites as usual. First, they’ve wanted Obama to be tougher on leakers, not more lax. And second, if this had been George W. Bush’s Justice Department, by and large I’d imagine most conservative would be saying, “Good! To hell with those sissies at AP. This is national security.”
But their hypocrisy isn’t the main story here. On this one, the administration’s is. For a journalist, I’m not a very good First Amendment absolutist. As the guy who wrote just a week ago that there are no absolute rights (I was writing about the Second Amendment), I realize it would be dodgy of me to carve out an exemption for the First just because I’m a journalist and such an exemption might benefit me. So I recognize that there are times when journalists might have to reveal sources—when a person’s life is at stake, say, and others. And remember, the Supreme Court has never recognized a journalist’s right to protect source confidentiality. But even with all that, it’s pretty clear that Obama has been waging a secret war and then pursuing journalists trying to dig into it with more zeal than even the Bush administration did. And it’s an extra irony that Mr. Process Liberal is presiding over all this.
So what’s he going to do now? I think we can predict. He’s going to stand by Eric Holder for now and let some interminable process play out. Just like he’s going to let some lengthy process play out at the IRS.
And while these processes play out, it’s going to be drip, drip, drip. Republicans will say anything they need to say to gain political advantage. And now, this is the kind of matter that’s going to get Democrats worked up too. I wrote yesterday that he needs to crack some heads at the IRS and crack them fast. And now, he ought to ask for Holder’s resignation. This week. Enough already. Holder's rights here aren't more important than Obama sending a strong signal that he is in charge and can make hard decisions. Holder will go off and make millions of dollars anyway, and there are lots of other people out there who can be attorney general.
Like the IRS situation, it seems likely the White House knew nothing about this. It might be in this case that Justice communicated with the White House counsel. But the president isn’t supposed to know, and I assume he didn’t.
But even so, he has to show the country that he won’t accept this. Administrations almost always hunker down in these situations and hope they pass. But with the opposition he faces, nothing is going to pass. And if Obama permits these things to linger, they’ll poison the situation on Capitol Hill, which hardly needs any more poisoning, and the substantive bills he wants to pass will be at risk because the GOP base will be that much more intolerant of any Republicans voting for anything Obama favors.
This isn’t a time for letting processes play out. This is a time to take action.