Are there scandals or not?

20 May

Barack-Obama-pensive-sizedThe past week may or may not have been a good one for President Obama’s Republican critics.

None of the current alleged scandals – the attacks on a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, the targeting of conservative tax-exempt groups by the IRS; or the Justice Department’s broad subpoena of Associated Press phone records – have reached the White House yet.

But that only gives Republicans more reason to keep digging.

With all that’s been happening recently, it’s starting to feel a lot like the 1990s – and not in a good way.

The president is facing the possibility of Bill Clinton – era levels of investigations, polarization, and bitterness – with gridlock, dysfunction, soaring deficits, mass unemployment, and ideological cable networks thrown in for good measure.

Talk of impeachment is even back in the air.

But remember, the ’90s weren’t great for Republicans.

So the big question regarding Obama’s second term is: is he and his party doomed, or are Republicans overplaying their hand?

Let’s ponder this…

Unlike Bill Clinton, Obama isn’t handing ammunition to Republicans in the form of self-created personal scandals.

And yet he is presiding over a conflict-ridden era that is, if anything, even more exasperating than the Clinton era.

The Republicans are blocking his judges and Cabinet secretaries, attacking his budget proposals as both too austere and not austere enough, trying to withhold money for a smooth transition to the new health care law, and threatening again to ignore the debt limit and the possibility of default.

Now throw in multiple investigations of the IRS and Benghazi, some warranted and some excessive.

Where will it all lead?

Some signs do point to American’s tiring of scandal.
The Benghazi story, for one, isn’t getting much traction with the public.

A new Pew poll finds that just 44 percent of Americans are paying even slight attention to the GOP’s Benghazi investigation, and those people are split along the usual partisan lines on how Obama has handled things.

The other two headlines might be a different story.

Either by itself — the AP and IRS — would have caused a headache for the Obama administration but the two of them together could spell big trouble for the Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections.

Already there is talk of how all this could affect American’s trust in government, and that’s bad news for Democrats.

It’s simple…
When trust in government falls, the party in the White House tends to do worse in midterm elections.

The answer to all this lies in how big the so-called scandals become.

If they become big news the Democratic party may be heading for major losses in 2014.

And if that happens and the GOP keeps control of the House and takes the Senate, the question isn’t “will Republicans try to impeach Obama,” it’s “when will it happen?”

But let’s be reasonable and look at the other side – for there always is another side.

The crucial ingredient for a scandal is the prospect of high-level White House involvement and wide political repercussions.

Government wrongdoing is boring, and if you read Honolulu Notes on a regular basis you know it’s a daily occurrence.
Around the office we call it an embarrassment of riches, there’s so much to pick on.

But scandals can bring down presidents, decide elections and revive political parties.
Scandals can dominate American politics for months at a time.

If you take a fair look at the evidence that’s come out in the past week, it doesn’t look like any of these scandals will pan out.

Yes, there’ll be more hearings, and more bad press for the Obama administration, and more demands for documents.

But – and this is important – if no more revelations pop up, those that have already surfaced show no real wrongdoing, and the ones that include real wrongdoing don’t reach high enough.

Let’s go through them.

IRS-sized1) The Internal Revenue Service: The IRS mess was a mess.
But it’s not a mess that implicates the White House, or even senior IRS leadership.

If you believe the agency inspector general’s report, a group of employees in a division called the “Determinations Unit” 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.

It also ordered 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.

Benghazi-sign-sized2) Benghazi: It’s 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 last week of 100 pages of internal e-mails on those talking points seems to show this was a bureaucratic knife fight between the State Department and the CIA.

As for the White House’s role, the e-mails suggest there wasn’t much of one.
The Washington Post: “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.”

As for why the talking points seemed to blame protesters rather than terrorists for the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans?

According to the e-mails and initial CIA-drafted talking points, the agency believed the attack included a mix of Islamist extremists and angry demonstrators.

White House officials did not challenge that analysis, the e-mails show, nor did they object to its inclusion in the public talking points.

But the CIA deputy director later removed the reference to the name of the extremists because the assessment was still classified and because FBI officials believed that making the information public could compromise their investigation.

So far it’s hard to see what the scandal here is supposed to be.

doj-sized3) AP/Justice Department: This is the weirdest of the three.

There’s no evidence that the Department of Justice did anything illegal.

Keep in mind – what they did was distasteful and in our opinion – wrong.
But it wasn’t 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 scandal accusations are also changing.

Because there was no actual evidence of presidential involvement in these events, the line for much of the past week was that the president was not involved enough in their aftermath.

He was “passive.”
He seemed to be a “bystander.”
He was being controlled by events, rather than controlling them himself.

The smarter voices are also beginning to warn others to slow down and be cautious.

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 come from the President.

The talk of impeachment is absurd and the questions of what did the president know and when did he know it will probably end up finding out he knew just about nothing.

It’s always possible that evidence could emerge that pushes one of these issues into true scandal territory.

But the trend line so far is clear – the more information that comes out, the less these actually look like scandals.

Pick either side you want, but the smart money is on “wait and see”.

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