In case it slipped your mind during all this talk of scandal and impeachment, official Washington has spent the last couple of years gnashing its teeth about the budget deficit. Even as European austerity policies threw the continent into a period of extended despair, Republicans and their allies in the well-appointed conference rooms of "centrist" think tanks told us sternly that unemployment would have to wait; the most immediate crisis was the deficit.
Richard Nixon and John Ehrlichman (White House photo). These guys knew from cover-ups.
Of all the crazy things people on the right are now saying about Benghazi, I'll admit that the one that most makes me want to scream is that it's "worse than Watergate." I get that much of the time it's just a way of saying "This is a big deal," and maybe there are some of your dumber elected officials (your Goehmerts, your Bachmanns) who actually believe it. But the idea is so plainly absurd that sometimes it feels like they're just trolling, saying it not because any sane person could actually think it's true, but because they just want to drive me nuts.
And as long as they keep saying it, I guess we'll have to keep reminding people with short memories what actual scandals involve. To that end, Jonathan Bernstein has a nice reminder for us about Watergate and what a real cover-up looks like, in the course of which he counters the old "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up" aphorism: "I'll stick with what I always say about this: its the crime, not the cover-up, that gets people in trouble. The reason for the Watergate cover-up was that specific crimes had been committed, crimes which could have (had they been confessed to in June 1972) sent much of the senior White House staff, much of the campaign organization, and perhaps the President of the United States straight to prison." I'd add that in the case of Watergate, the cover-up actually consisted of new crimes, added on to the original crimes.
In case you didn't notice, over the last few days we entered a new phase in the Obama presidency: the scandal phase. What happened? It wasn't evidence of a crime being unearthed, or a confession from a conspirator. There was no sudden revelation, no arrests, no cancer on the presidency. Indeed, just a few days ago it looked for all the world like Benghazi would take its place with Solyndra and "Fast and Furious" as one more wished-for scandal that, despite the best efforts of Republicans, failed to take flight. Yet all it took was ABC News getting passed some emails between the CIA, the State Department, and the White House detailing how the administration argued over how exactly to talk about the attack in Benghazi to get things underway, and now we have calls for special committees and ramped-up coverage. There may not be anything particularly shocking in those emails—just the time-honored tradition of people trying to cover their asses—but some internal deliberations being revealed, no matter what they contain, has given the media enough of a prod to start that scandal train moving, and before you know it everyone's going to jump onboard.
So suddenly it looks like this isn't going away, not because there was appalling malfeasance (or any malfeasance at all), but because once the train is moving, it's almost impossible to stop. Put together the right's desperate longing for an Obama scandal—turn on Fox News or listen to conservative radio, and you'll see eyelids fluttering in ecstasy as this story gains momentum—with congressional Republicans' helplessness in the face of pressure from their base, and the media's inability to resist a presidential scandal story, and this whole thing might not end unless and until Barack Obama is impeached.
Within hours after the news broke that the Internal Revenue Service singled out Tea Party and other conservative groups that had applied for tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status for extra scrutiny, conservatives were already complaining that the story wasn't getting enough play in the media. "Imagine if this had happened under President Bush!" they cried. For starters, it actually did. In that case, it was the FBI, not the IRS, that went after liberal groups under the pretense that they might be harboring al Qaeda terrorists (after all, it's well known that the first thing a sleeper cell does when they get to the U.S.
As we're learning more about the IRS giving heightened scrutiny to conservative groups filing for tax-exempt status, we should make one thing clear: If what we've heard so far holds up, the people involved should probably get fired, and new safeguards should be put in place to make sure nothing like it happens again. And let it be noted that liberal publications, at least the ones I've seen, have all taken that position and have been discussing this story at length.
Now, let's see if we can understand the context in which this happened. There's an irony at work here, which is that it may well be that the IRS employees involved were trying to obey the spirit of the law but ended up violating the letter of the law, while for the organizations in question it was the opposite: they were trying to violate the spirit of the law, but probably didn't violate the letter of the law.