Sorting Through the Scandals

Every administration has its scandals, but what's different about what's happening to the Obama administration is the confluence of two separate scandalish stories converging at the same time. Or maybe two and a half; were it not for the timing, the Justice Department's pursuit of the Associated Press over leaks of information related to terrorist activity would never be called a "scandal," and I doubt Republicans would even have bothered getting mad about it (I'll get back to that in a moment). The whole thing is complicated by the fact that Benghazi and the IRS are so different, in ways that complicate the Republicans' task. In their minds, the two stories are part of a seamless web of corruption, two symptoms of the same underlying disease. But that only makes sense if you already believed that Barack Obama was a villain bent on destroying the nation, and most Americans don't.

The trouble for Republicans is that one scandal reaches to the top levels of the administration, but it's the one where no actual malfeasance occurred, while the one involving genuinely scandalous behavior doesn't get anywhere near the White House, at least from what we know so far. Benghazi involves the State Department and the CIA and the White House, and it's got Hillary Clinton, and who knows, maybe the President himself making decisions that can be dissected and turned into something sinister and (fingers crossed!) impeachable. But they haven't yet been able to convince anyone that it wasn't just a screw-up or a tragedy but a case of misconduct or criminal behavior.

The misbehavior in the IRS, on the other hand, doesn't appear to have gotten past mid-level career bureaucrats, who by law are insulated from White House meddling precisely so this sort of thing doesn't happen, or at least doesn't happen at the behest of the president and his advisors. I suspect that's why, as angry as they may be about it, they probably know deep down it won't deliver what they want (renowned nincompoop Michele Bachmann told the conspiracy site World Net Daily that the administration released the IRS story in an effort to distract America from Benghazi). Sure, they'll be able to express plenty of outrage and have hearings about it, but it won't put Barack Obama in handcuffs, and they know it.

I wouldn't count on the the story of the Justice Department acquiring phone records of the AP in pursuit of a leaker maintaining any Republican interest for more than a week or so. For them, it's kind of like the little salad sitting in the corner of their scandal plate. They may take a bite or two, more because they think they ought to more than anything else, but they're much more interested in the meat and potatoes. It isn't just that there were reports of George W. Bush's administration doing to other news organizations exactly what Obama's Justice Department did to the AP, and conservatives were unconcerned. More generally, they don't really care about government harassment of the press; you might recall that when Bush was president and stories about the administration's anti-terrorism activities were leaked, many on the right were calling for reporters to be thrown in jail or even tried for treason.11Here's an excerpt from a 2006 American Journalism Review story on the reaction to The New York Times publishing a story about the Bush administration's effort to disrupt al Qaeda's finances, an effort they had publicly bragged about: "Vice President Dick Cheney weighed in more pointedly the next day. 'Some in the press, in particular The New York Times, have made the job of defending against further terrorist attacks more difficult by insisting on publishing detailed information about vital national security programs,' Cheney said in a June 27 speech. He called the Times' Pulitzer for its NSA story 'a disgrace.' Those statements were positively temperate compared with the reaction among administration allies. Senator Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican, accused The New York Times of 'treason.' Representative Peter King, a New York Republican who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, asked the U.S. attorney general to launch a criminal investigation of the paper. On June 29, the House of Representatives voted 227-to-183 to condemn the publication of classified information and to urge news organizations' cooperation in the war on terror. In early August, Senator Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican, introduced a bill that would criminalize the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. The punditry was even more vociferous. On June 28, San Francisco talk show host Melanie Morgan told the San Francisco Chronicle that New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller should be jailed for treason for approving publication of the banking records story. 'If he were to be tried and convicted of treason, yes, I would have no problem with him being sent to the gas chamber,' Morgan told the Chronicle. 'It is about revealing classified secrets in the time of war. And the media has got to take responsibility for revealing classified information that is putting American lives at risk.'"

So we can set that aside, but what Benghazi and the IRS will do is bring Republicans together, though not necessarily in a way that's good for them. Republicans may have their differences, but one thing they can all agree on is their hatred for Barack Obama. As Greg Sargent noted yesterday, one of the effects of scandal-mania is to put the Republican rebranding effort on hold indefinitely. You can't bothered to spend time reaching out to young and minority voters when you're plotting strategy to get the president impeached. And the scandals could make everyone in the GOP caucus even less likely to sign on to anything Obama supports, particularly immigration reform, where the stakes for the Republican party are very high. If they kill it at the same time that they're whipping themselves into a frenzy and talking about impeachment, you'll likely see their approval in the public, and particularly among Latino voters, plunge even further.

If nothing else, maybe the White House can take some solace from that. It was often said about Bill Clinton that he was blessed in his enemies, and to a degree the same may be true of Barack Obama.

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