The expression “I take full responsibility” has come to mean nothing at all in Washington. Nothing.
As many others have pointed out, taking responsibility has to have some consequences. If you take it for something good, the consequence would be a reward or compliment or some such positive thing. If you take it for something bad, the consequence would be a loss of some sort.
But when President Barack Obama said he takes full responsibility for the mess with several of his nominees, especially with former the Democratic ex-senator from North Dakota, Tom Daschle, nothing at all appears to have happened in terms of adverse consequence for Obama. Did he have to resign? No. Did he have to pay a fine? Nothing happened even to the Democratic Party’s reputation, which should have suffered most in the eyes of voters. It seems to be all A-OK! What on earth then does it mean for Obama to take full responsibility?
And he of course is by no means the only one who keeps using this phrase without any seriousness. Many politicians do so, both Democrats and Republicans. Every time it occurs, it prompts me to wonder whether some kind of secret agreement has been made in Washington and perhaps throughout the political landscape that when some malpractice occurs, someone will stand up and say this. Then, that’s it. Nothing else will happen. Taking responsibility will thus come to mean nothing and amount to nothing.
And the media appears to go along with all this since when Obama said on ABC-TV news that he takes full responsibility for the Daschle mess, no one followed up with a question, “And what exactly will your punishment be, given that you take full responsibility?” Or perhaps they all believe that such misconduct by politicians will only come to be dealt with in the afterlife so there is no need to worry about it here.
Responsibility means having been a primary cause of what one is responsible for — say you take responsibility for a car accident or the collapse of a building of which you were the building supervisor or a botched-up operation where you are the chief surgeon. In all such cases, if you are the responsible party and it’s discovered, usually certain serious adverse consequences follow. Like a demotion, for example, in the military, or the loss of a job in a civilian line of work.
But if nothing follows from being responsible for an adverse result, then it is really quite pointless to say someone was responsible for it. More likely, taking responsibility without such adverse consequence demeans the very idea of responsibility, renders is vacuous.
What, for example, should criminal defendants who get convicted of a crime for which they are found to have been responsible, think of this loose use of the concept of responsibility? Why should they feel any regret, why should they accept their punishment for what they did? After all, no one is punishing the president when he proclaims to be responsible for the nomination of a tax dodger to his cabinet?
Obama made a lot of noise during the election campaign, and even after it, about how there will be change in Washington when he gets there and specifically about how ethics will be front and center during his presidency. By failing to take real responsibility for having chosen several people for his team who have tainted legal and ethical records, his claims on this matter can be dismissed as disingenuous. His critics will have every justification for saying that he isn’t trustworthy, he is no better a politician than those he and his supporters have criticized in magazines, op-ed pieces, TV commentaries.
It would be interesting to hear former President Bush and Vice President Cheney as they witness how the righteous team of Obama is faltering so early in the presidency. I can just hear what Rush Limbaugh must be making of this!
But more important than all of that is the fact that very likely what Obama is experiencing is simply unavoidable in the bloated welfare state America has become. When the government is in the business of wealth redistribution, handing out favors right and left, to various special interest groups and powerful allies, how on earth can anyone expect there to be ethically and legal spotless politicians? It is part of such a welfare state that it breeds corruption.
Tibor Machan is a professor at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at TMachan@link.freedom.com.