The lack of substance in the current scandals

“Scandal” seems to be the watchword of politics lately, and if you’re to believe the mainstream media it seems that the only things being done in Washington this week are either the discovery of new scandals, or the reactions to/investigations of already-discovered scandals. But despite what would appear to be a plethora of wrongdoing in our current government, the whole things is a farce, devoid of any substance. As Ezra Klein wrote for the Washington Post, “absent more revelations, the scandals that could reach high don’t seem to include any real wrongdoing, whereas the ones that include real wrongdoing don’t reach high enough.” Scandals require “the prospect of high-level White House involvement and wide political repercussions.” So far, the reality of each scandal does not suggest this is the case.

Benghazi is the biggest farce, as the scandal surrounding a truly tragic incident has devolved into being not actually about anything. No one is arguing anything important to the actual event, or even anything important to the administration’s reaction to the event. The worst thing Obama has stood accused of – and it’s worth noting that this is still in dispute, and in some places has disintegrated into an argument over semantics – is not calling the incident an act of “terror” soon enough. It has also come down to accusations that the administration may have “air-brushed” its talking points, and its accusers are grasping so hard and reaching so far as to call this a more significant event than Watergate, and saying Obama will eventually have to resign, which makes their argument even more preposterous. Klein writes:

We’re long past the point where it’s obvious what the Benghazi scandal is supposed to be about. The inquiry has moved on from the events in Benghazi proper, tragic as they were, to the talking points about the events in Benghazi. And the release Wednesday night of 100 pages of internal e-mails on those talking points seems to show what my colleague Glenn Kessler suspected: This was a bureaucratic knife fight between the State Department and the CIA.

As for the White House’s role, well, the e-mails suggest there wasn’t much of one. “The internal debate did not include political interference from the White House, according to the e-mails, which were provided to congressional intelligence committees several months ago,” report The Washington Post’s Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung.

The AP phone records scandal, while not as preposterous, does not actually include any wrongdoing or law-breaking. While this is true – and, in fact, because its true – what is troubling in this case is that something like this could happen without a law being broken. As a Washington Post heading stated, “the real scandal is what’s legal.” It seems like something must have gone wrong here. But from a legal standpoint, using this as an attack on the Obama administration does not hold water. Again from Klein:

This is the weirdest of the three [scandals]. There’s no evidence that the DoJ did anything illegal. Most people, in fact, think it was well within its rights to seize the phone records of Associated Press reporters. And if the Obama administration has been overzealous in prosecuting leakers, well, the GOP has been arguing that the White House hasn’t taken national security leaks seriously enough. The AP/DoJ fight has caused that position to flip, and now members of Congress are concerned that the DoJ is going after leaks too aggressively. But it’s hard for a political party to prosecute wrongdoing when they disagree with the potential remedies.

Insofar as there’s a “scandal” here, it’s more about what is legal than what isn’t. The DoJ simply has extraordinary power, under existing law, to spy on ordinary citizens — members of the media included. The White House is trying to change existing law by encouraging Sen. Chuck Schumer to reintroduce the Media Shield Act. The Post’s Rachel Weiner has a good rundown of what the bill would do. It’s likely that the measure’s national security exemption would make it relatively toothless in this particular case, but if Congress is worried, they always can — and probably should — take that language out. Still, that legislation has been killed by Republicans before, and it’s likely to be killed by them again.

The only current scandal that is actually troubling is the IRS scandal. On either side of the aisle, no one is comfortable with the idea that an often-draconian agency could be using their prerogative oversight power to pick on people based their beliefs, that our ideology could affect our tax status. And I’ll be the first to admit that this stands in direct contradiction to the philosophies of governing expressed in the Constitution, that it is discrimination above and beyond the role of the IRS (though they are allowed to make certain judgements in 501(c)(4) cases, that is a different conversation). But to look at it purely as an indictment of the Obama administration and its policies is both facile and plainly incorrect. The corruption – if we can call it that – didn’t extend to the White House, and didn’t even extend to the top of the IRS. The ranking IRS and department heads tried to correct the problem as soon as they found out about it, not once but twice. Based on current information – and this, of course, could change as more information is revealed – there was nothing hinting at conspiracy, definitely not the sort of wide-ranging conspiracy that could implicate the White House. Again, from Klein:

The IRS mess was, well, a mess. But it’s not a mess that implicates the White House, or even senior IRS leadership. If we believe the agency inspector general’s report, a group of employees in a division called the “Determinations Unit” — sounds sinister, doesn’t it? — started giving tea party groups extra scrutiny, were told by agency leadership to knock it off, started doing it again, and then were reined in a second time and told that any further changes to the screening criteria needed to be approved at the highest levels of the agency.

The White House fired the acting director of the agency on the theory that somebody had to be fired and he was about the only guy they had the power to fire. They’re also instructing the IRS to implement each and every one of the IG’s recommendations to make sure this never happens again.

If new information emerges showing a connection between the Determination Unit’s decisions and the Obama campaign, or the Obama administration, it would crack this White House wide open. That would be a genuine scandal. But the IG report says that there’s no evidence of that. And so it’s hard to see where this one goes from here.

However, all of that being said, these assertions are based on the substance of the argument, or rather the lack of substance to the opposition’s argument. But the fact that there is no there there never matters as much as how it appears in a soundbite or news headline. So all these scandals could have huge effect on people taking them at face value, and considering the large percentage of the population we know vote a straight, party-line ticket at election time, this could be bad for the entire Democratic party, both in the 2014 midterms coming up and in the 2016 election. That’s fairly obvious. What’s not as obvious is how this could be equally bad for Republicans. From Ronald Brownstein, writing for the National Journal:

These confrontations’ most predictable effect will be to enrage the GOP base, which will strengthen the party factions most dubious about any compromises with Obama. In that way, these storms will likely weaken not only the president but also Republicans who believe the party must reboot to restore its competitiveness for the White House. “The base of the party is going to go ballistic on this, particularly the IRS [issue],” says Tom Davis, the former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “It makes it harder for [GOP legislators] to go along with Obama on things in general.”

The Clinton impeachment captures the dynamic. After voters returned Clinton and GOP House and Senate majorities in 1996, the two sides reached a sweeping balanced-budget deal in 1997. As historian Steven M. Gillon recounted in his eye-opening 2008 book, The Pact, Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich privately envisioned centrist follow-on agreements that included a major Social Security reform plan. But with many conservatives already bridling at the budget deal, the impeachment push made further compromise untenable for either side. Congressional Republicans faced insurmountable pressure from the right not to provide accomplishments that could fortify a president they considered illegitimate, and Clinton could not risk angering liberals he needed to defend him from impeachment by making policy deals with Gingrich. Impeachment destroyed “any possibility of them moving to the center,” says Gillon, now at the University of Oklahoma.

A drumbeat of congressional hearings on the IRS and Benghazi, whatever they reveal, could easily reproduce that progression. Like Clinton, Obama may feel constrained about reaching agreements with Republicans (on entitlements for instance) that anger liberals if he needs their support against GOP investigations.

Republicans may feel greater effects. Even before these disclosures, congressional Republicans had dramatically escalated their resistance to Obama’s second term. While the House is voting yet again this week to repeal the president’s health care law, Senate Republicans have blocked consideration of Obama’s nominees for Labor secretary and Environmental Protection Agency administrator. As in Clinton’s era, the approaching cycle of investigation, media leak, and hearing-room confrontation over the IRS and Benghazi will deepen a sense of unstinting partisan conflict that will further narrow the space for serious legislative negotiations.

The backlash of this most recent assault on the integrity of the Obama administration could spur the already polarized factions of government to even further polarization, the opposite direction from where each need and most want to go, and would damage both extensively. Again from Ezra Klein:

The smarter voices on the right are also beginning to counsel caution. ”While there’s still more information to be gathered and more investigations to be done, all indications are that these decisions – on the AP, on the IRS, on Benghazi – don’t proceed from [Obama],” wrote Ben Domenech in The Transom, his influential conservative morning newsletter. “The talk of impeachment is absurd. The queries of ‘what did the president know and when did he know it’ will probably end up finding out “’just about nothing, and right around the time everyone else found out.’”

Hopefully the smarter ones will listen to him, for everyone’s sake, and let the government get back to the business of (not) governing. But I’m not holding my breath.

  1. jeremiah757 said:

    Here are two allegations about Benghazi. Please decide for yourself if they warrant further scrutiny. Do not let Ezra Klein tell you what is a scandal and what is not.

    It is alleged that security teams were available during the attack and could have saved lives. Maybe not. Maybe they were too far away, but this is a troubling allegation. Sec. Panetta has said that a rescue was impossible, but no one has said who made that decision – and there is no timeline to support his assertion.

    The attack was attributed to mob violence over an offensive video. Sec. Clinton and others offered this explanation at Andrews and on TV. There is evidence that many people in the administration knew this was false at the time. Ambassador Rice was probably not one of them, so you have to wonder who knew what, when ¬– and why we weren’t told the truth.

    Benghazi may not be a scandal, but it sure smells like a cover-up. Here is a simple test for media bias. Ask yourself, would Mr. Klein be so sanguine about Benghazi if it had happened while President Bush was in office?

  2. kipp said:

    I assure you I am not beholden to Ezra Klein’s opinions on anything. I would like to think that I judge each article I read on its merits without making determinations based on the author – at least that’s what I aspire to do. I cited Klein’s article because I think he is right, not because of who he is or isn’t. If anyone else had written it I would have cited it just the same.

    I’ll cede that answering these questions – particularly the first one – is important, but only insofar as they will help lead to improved security to ward off similar attacks in the future. But who knew what, when, whether the word “terrorist” was used or not, whether the attack was attributed to mob violence accurately or not, mistakenly or not, does not warrant anywhere near the level of importance or attention it has received, solely for the purpose of laying blame at the feet of the Obama administration or particular individuals within it. We’ve gotten away from talking about what happened in Benghazi, to talking about what the administration said about what happened in Benghazi, which is several orders of magnitude less important.

    I’m all for outing wrongdoers, as long as there is wrong doing. So far we only have accusations that it seems fishy, that it seems like a cover-up, and groundless calls for impeachment and for the president to resign (not to mention assertions that this is a worse scandal than Watergate, an instance where there was provable, blatant criminality) using the strongest rhetoric possible. If it comes out in a week or a year that the administration did something worth covering up, I would have no problem condemning them for it. But we don’t have that yet, and the more time goes by, the more wild the accusations are getting. Perhaps the situation could have been handled a little more competently, but we’re a ways away from anything criminal or even grossly underhanded.

    Thanks sincerely for the commentary.

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