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Watergate Revisited? A hard look at the Obama-Nixon comparison

Richard Nixon

President Nixon appears in Washington, April 29, 1969, before the general session of the annual meeting of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Speaking on campus unrest, Nixon said dissent is welcome provided it is peaceful. "There can be no compromise with lawlessness and no surrender to force if free education is to survive in the United States of America," he added. (AP Photo)AP1969

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Ready for Hillary? She Seems Ready As Shadow Campaign Takes Shape

Correcting the Cruz Record

Watergate Revisited? A Hard Look at the Obama-Nixon Comparison

Is Barack Obama acting like Richard Nixon?

As someone who lived through the massive criminality and mendacity of Watergate, I take these comparisons seriously.

The shorthand “Watergate” stands for more than what the Nixon White House dismissed as a third-rate burglary at Democratic headquarters; it encompasses other break-ins, wiretaps, tax audits, hush money, cover-ups and perjury that sent many administration officials to jail and drove a president from office.

So for some on the right to accuse the current president of Nixonian behavior is a heavy charge indeed.

Here’s how Victor Davis Hanson frames it in National Review:

“Nixon tried to use the Internal Revenue Service to go after his political enemies — although his IRS chiefs at least refused his orders to focus on liberals…

“Nixon ignored settled law and picked and chose which statutes he would enforce — from denying funds for the Clean Water Act to ignoring congressional subpoenas.

“Nixon attacked TV networks and got into personal arguments with journalists such as CBS’s Dan Rather…

“Nixon wanted the Federal Communications Commission to hold up the licensing of some television stations on the basis of their political views…

“Nixon went after ‘enemies.’ He ordered surveillance to hound his suspected political opponents and was paranoid about leaks.”

Pretty bad stuff, right?

Now Davis lays out the particulars against this administration:

“The IRS? So far, the Obama-era IRS has succeeded in hounding nonprofit tea-party groups into political irrelevancy… 

“The FCC? According to FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, Obama’s agency, until outrage arose, had planned ‘to ask station managers, news directors, journalists, television anchors and on-air reporters to tell the government about their “news philosophy” and how the station ensures that the community gets critical information.’…

“Enemies? Federal authorities jailed a video maker for a minor probation violation after the Obama administration falsely blamed him for causing a riot that led to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi in September 2012…

“Going after reporters? Obama regularly blames Fox News by name for its criticism…

“Ignoring the law? The Affordable Care Act as currently administered bears little resemblance to the law that was passed by Congress and signed by the president. Federal immigration law is now a matter of enforcing what the president allows and ignoring the rest.

“Wiretaps? Well, aside from the electronic surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency, the Obama Justice Department secretly monitored Fox News reporter and sometime critic James Rosen.”

The problem with most of these examples is there’s no evidence that Obama ordered, or knew about, these efforts. And that’s very different from Nixon, who as we know from the secret tapes, would talk about breaking into the Brookings Institution.

One prominent exception would be the surveillance of journalists such as those at the Associated Press and Fox’s James Rosen. Obama may not have personally known in advance, but his attorney general, Eric Holder, did.

Perhaps one day evidence will emerge that the president or his top aides encouraged the IRS Cincinnati field office to crack down on conservative groups, but so far there’s no proof.

The FCC’s aborted effort to question TV newsrooms about bias and philosophy was incredibly boneheaded and disturbing, but there is no sign of White House involvement—as opposed to Nixon’s FCC challenging the licenses of two Washington Post stations.

Did Obama order the filmmaker jailed? He rips Fox all the time, but he has sat down with Bill O’Reilly twice.

It is troubling that the president keeps unilaterally changing the implementation of ObamaCare. But it was George W. Bush who ramped up the practice of “signing statements” that reserved his right to ignore parts of newly passed congressional laws. (The House on Wednesday passed an "enforce the law" act on a largely party-line vote, and the administration is threatening a veto.)

Criticize Obama all you want. Davis has a point that civil libertarians who railed against Republican presidents have given Obama a pass (on such issues as NSA surveillance, I would add). But Nixonian conduct is an awfully high bar to clear unless you can show that a president personally condoned lawbreaking.

Ready for Hillary? She Seems Ready As Shadow Campaign Takes Shape

When it comes to Hillary, journalists are still obligated to use the qualifiers: If she runs. Once she decides. The potential presidential candidate.

That is now starting to feel like a charade.

Of course Hillary Rodham Clinton could change her mind and not put herself through the meat grinder of another presidential campaign. I’ve been agnostic until now. What’s changed my mind is that she is allowing her friends to gear up a massive effort on her behalf.

Yes, technically, they are not acting in concert with the former secretary of State because of legal restrictions. But does anyone believe that Hillary would allow her high-powered pals to create a superstructure on her behalf, hit up lots of Democratic donors, and then shrug it off with a “never mind”? Couldn’t she tamp it down with a raised eyebrow?

Time’s Mark Halperin adds another piece of the puzzle, reporting on the sheer magnitude of the Ready for Hillary project. Its website is doing more than hawking HRC mugs, caps and T-shirts.

Craig Smith, who has been part of Bill and Hillary’s orbit since the Arkansas days, tells Time: “Our goal is to build the Ferrari of grassroots operations. All we need is a driver ready to hit the gas.”

Now I ask you: Would loyalists like Smith build a luxury car just to spin their wheels?

“There is now talk among Ready officials about finishing 2014 with 5 million supporters and 2 million active volunteers, numbers that would likely dwarf the assets of all the GOP wannabes combined. If realized, that would be substantially more than the piddling grassroots effort that Clinton mounted against Obama six years ago.”

Now grassroots campaigns by themselves don’t win elections. You need a candidate with a strong message. But it sure doesn’t hurt to have lots of ground troops. 

And Smith estimates that Clinton Inc., including the super PACs, will cost $1.7 billion, much more than either side spent in 2012. Still, the deep pockets here could pose a real challenge to the eventual Republican nominee.

The media are already covering Hillary like a candidate, pouncing on every speech, every joke, every utterance. It’s in her interest to stay on the sidelines, officially at least, through 2014, since a two-year campaign is enough to make us sick of any candidate. But the effort now seems unofficial in name only.

Correcting the Cruz Record

This Associated Press report makes the Texas senator sound pretty bad:

“Calling their opponents Satan worshippers and savages, anti-abortion lawmakers insisted that Republican contenders keep an intense focus on social issues in the upcoming midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race… “Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who is a favorite of the tea party, said supporters of abortion rights chant ‘Hail, Satan’ to silence their enemies.”

But it turns out Cruz was referring to what one group of protesters actually said at one event.

The AP late yesterday ran a correction:

“In some versions of a story March 12 about possible Republican presidential contenders talking about abortion, The Associated Press reported erroneously that they called abortion rights activists Satan worshippers. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said abortion rights activists had chanted ‘Hail, Satan,’ referencing a rally last year in Austin, Texas.” 

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.