Emotion as a Substitute for Accountability

President Obama is outraged over the IRS scandal. Attorney General Holder is remorseful over the James Rosen subpoena. Former Secretary of State Clinton is exasperated by Benghazi. Lois Lerner is apologetic for the targeting of Tea Party groups. An unnamed White House adviser is chagrined by his own idiocy.

All of these emotive responses to scandal have in common that they help insulate the person doing the emoting from any real responsibility. Holder feels bad about what he has done but that’s it. He’s not leaving office.

Secretary Clinton is frustrated that people working for her denied additional security, rewrote talking points and blamed everything on a You Tube video. But “What difference does it make?!” she blurted out during her appearance before Congress. She feels terrible, just don’t hold it against her in 2016.

President Obama has been on an emotional jag lately. He was outraged by the IRS targeting of his political opponents, is shocked by the subpoena of James Rosen’s emails and (implicitly) repulsed by the drone strike that killed a 16 y.o. American citizen on his orders. It’s all very shocking and he knew nothing (except when he did) but in those cases he’s going to make sure it never happens again.

The idea behind all of these responses is that the person responsible has learned their lesson. Everything in Washington becomes an Aesop’s fable the moment it goes wrong. The powerful ham-handedly act out the role of the enlightened pupil and then carry on as if expecting more than a self-inflicted slap on the wrist would be, well, outrageous.

You may have noticed that this approach to wrong-doing only works for people like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. You or I can’t cheat on our taxes and go to the I.R.S. with a sob story and a promise it won’t happen again. We can try but the I.R.S. will still demand our money and threaten to seize our property.

Similarly, if you or I look at someone else’s email using tendentious legal reasoning, the judge won’t let us off the hook because we feel sorry. It may help at sentencing but sorrow alone is not enough to avoid jail time.

Admit your underlings misused their official powers in the worst way imaginable and see if you can skate by on administrative leave, i.e. paid vacation. That works for Lois Lerner but not for people with real jobs working outside the bubble of government service.

In Washington DC a staged, false show of humility followed by an empty promise of change is the closest anyone gets to accountability. Just don’t try emoting your way out of trouble with government. The expectations for you and me are very different.

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