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OUR OPINION: The scandals' key casualty is trust

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Grand Forks Herald
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"The scandals are falling apart," writes liberal blogger Ezra Klein at The Washington Post.

"(A)bsent more revelations, the scandals that could reach high don't seem to include any real wrongdoing, whereas the ones that include real wrongdoing don't reach high enough."

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In other words, Klein seems to think, Benghazi's a bust, The Associated Press had it coming and the IRS revelations are nothing more than a low-level break-in (a phrase older readers will recognize from another era).

But Klein is wrong, both on the specifics and especially in trying to downplay the scandals' overall impact.

That's because the revelations and headlines steadily erode the Obama administration's most valuable resource, the asset it most desperately needs: trust.

How can Americans trust Obama to get health care or immigration reform right when his administration is proving intrusive and overaggressive on so much else?

At the very least, the attitudes that went into the making of these scandals came from the top. Think of it this way: Obama could have insisted on scrupulous nonpartisanship from all of his agencies, including the IRS. He could have shown such respect for the First Amendment and a free press that the Justice Department would have bent over backwards to follow procedure while investigating The AP.

He could rewarded truth-tellers and straight-shooters throughout his first term, thus encouraging his people to be upfront about Benghazi from the start.

But he didn't do those things. Instead, the tone he set told executive-branch employees that spin matters, partisanship pays and leaks should quashed at all costs.

Can we trust an administration which shows this "ends justify the means" mindset to ethically run programs for the common good?

"The Obama administration is doing a far better job making the case for conservatism than Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell or John Boehner ever did," writes John Dickerson, Slate's chief political correspondent.

"Showing is always better than telling, and when the government overreaches in so many ways, it gives support to the conservative argument about the inherently rapacious nature of government."

Dickerson's got a point. In general, liberals believe in government's power to do good, while conservatives think "big, sprawling government inevitably gets out of hand," he writes.

"Liberals believe that there is a role for government to play in mediating market failures, and there are plenty of stories of areas where the safety net is thinning as a result of sequestration -- from cancer treatments to Head Start to Meals on Wheels -- where government should step in.

"But those stories get lost in the scandal coverage of an administration, making it look like conservatives fundamentally understand something that liberals do not."

Of course, there is a way to counter these perceptions, and it simply is for high officials exercise their great power with deliberate and very conscious self-restraint.

That, the Obama administration has failed to do.

Firing the acting head of the IRS isn't going to be enough. The president should accept responsibility for further damaging Americans' faith in government, then start showing the ethics and self-restraint that'll be needed to regain their trust.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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Tom Dennis
(701) 780-1276
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