The “Obama Scandals” Could Backfire On Republicans

The GOP's latest investigatory crusade could end up backfiring on them.

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National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru argues in  his column at Bloomberg this week that there’s a distinct danger that the GOP’s concentration on the trio of scandals could end up hurting the Republicans more than President Obama in the end:

Watch the way the Republicans are handling today’s controversies and it’s easy to see how their tactics could backfire again. You would expect that Senator Lindsey Graham, who helped to lead the impeachment proceedings against Clinton, had learned to be cautious in pursuing a scandal. Yet he decided to tie the Benghazi investigation explicitly to the 2016 presidential race, saying that the controversy would doom Hillary Clinton. If Graham were a Democratic plant trying to make the investigation look like a merely partisan exercise, he couldn’t have done better.

Republicans are trying to tie IRS misconduct to President Barack Obama, so far without much evidence. The Republican National Committee is demanding that the president apologize to targeted groups, apparently on the assumption that the public isn’t satisfied with his calling the IRS’s actions “intolerable and inexcusable.” Other Republicans are saying that the president created a “culture” that made the scandal possible by being a partisan Democrat.

These efforts are strained. If the evidence leads to the conclusion that the IRS bureaucracy acted on its own, that is scandal enough; it would serve to strengthen the public’s conservative instincts about the dangers of trusting the government, whoever happens to be in the Oval Office. Republicans shouldn’t be obsessed with Obama, who won’t be on the ballot again, and shouldn’t make a legitimate inquiry into potential abuses of power appear to be — or, worse, actually be — part of a personal vendetta.

Ponnuru goes on to point out that Republicans today seem to be pursuing a political strategy similar to the one that both motivated them to pursue the ultimately failed impeachment of Bill Clinton and to lose seats in the 1998 mid-term elections, something that was at the time and remains to this day an historical oddity:

For the most part, Republicans didn’t campaign on impeachment in 1998: They didn’t say, “Vote for me and I’ll do my level best to oust Clinton.” Their strategy was more passive. They were counting on the scandal to motivate conservatives to vote while demoralizing liberals. So they didn’t try to devise a popular agenda, or to make their existing positions less unpopular. That’s what cost them — that, and the mistake of counting on statistics about sixth-year elections, which also bred complacency.

Republicans have similar vulnerabilities on the issues now. They have no real health-care agenda. Voters don’t trust them to look out for middle-class economic interests. Republicans are confused and divided about how to solve the party’s problems. What they can do is unite in opposition to the Obama administration’s scandals and mistakes. So that’s what they’re doing. They’re trying to win news cycles when they need votes.

Congressional Republicans were right to press for hearings on all of these issues. But investigations of the administration won’t supply them with ideas. They won’t make the public trust Republicans. They won’t save them from themselves.

Ron Fournier pointed out an excellent example of the overreach that Ponnuru is talking about earlier this week in the person of RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, who accused the Obama White House of “lawlessness and guerilla warfare” during an appearance on Fox News Channel’s Hannity. And veteran political analyst Charlie Cook points out the real folly of the GOP’s decision to use these stories as a means to take on Obama, namely that they’re attacking someone who is in a far stronger position than they are:

Basically, Republicans are attacking Obama where he is least vulnerable and at a time when they have minimal credibility. It isn’t working. By trying to turn everything into a scandal rather than saying Obama’s policies are wrongheaded—and rather than fixing their own image problems with minority, female, younger, and moderate voters—Republicans are focusing on attacking a guy whose name will never again appear on a ballot.

The current situation is reminding many folks of the impeachment controversy in 1998. Blinded by their hatred for President Clinton, Republicans made irrational decisions then, and they are making the same mistakes today. For some House Republicans, their view of the president is a natural by-product of representing districts that are custom-drawn, conservative cocoons, where everyone pretty much thinks the same. These districts aren’t representative of the nation as a whole. I am constantly amazed at the number of Republican members of Congress who thought, all the way up to Election Day, that Mitt Romney would win.

Most Americans are becoming more hopeful that the economy is improving. The value of their homes and retirement accounts are increasing; the stock market is at a record high. They may not think the president has done a great job. But compared with congressional Republicans, he’s the pick of the litter.

Ponnuru and Cook are both on to something here. If you listen to the rhetoric coming out of talk radio, the conservative press, and conservative blogs, not to mention the words coming out of the mouths of the Members of Congress in charge of investigating these matters, it’s clear that the GOP is viewing Benghazi and the IRS scandal, and to a much lesser extent the reports about Department of Justice search warrants being executed against journalists, as opportunities to bash the President in the same way that Republicans views impeachment and the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the late 1990s. As I’ve said before, there are serious issues raised both by the attack in Benghazi and the fact that the Internal Revenue Service was targeting for extra scrutiny the 501(c)(4) applications of groups based on what appear to be purely political criteria. There are even more serious issues raised by the Justice Departments aggressive pursuit of leaks inside the government to and extent that has the potential to pose a threat to the ability of journalists to do their job. The problem is that Republicans aren’t focusing on those problems, at least not directly. They’re focusing on the extent to which they can use those problems to attack the President and, so far at least, it seems to be failing miserably.

If this turns into a battle between the President and the Republican Congress, there’s no question which way this is going to end. We’ve seen it several times already since the GOP took control of the House in 2010. Each time the President has won and the Republicans have lost. Indeed, the only occasions on which we’ve seen the President’s job approval numbers dip it’s either been due to external factors such as the state of the economy, which has been undeniably improving over the past several months, or errors on the part of the White House, and each of these dips has been relatively short lived (as have, admittedly, the sharp spikes in his job approval numbers such as those after the death of Osama bin Laden). While it’s true that the White House has stumbled to some expense in its response to Benghazi and the IRS stories, those mistakes clearly don’t seem to have hurt the President in any significant respect. In the meantime, the public remains highly skeptical of the House GOP, which makes it very difficult to sell their latest round of investigations as anything more than another round of partisan infighting. Unless that changes, it’s unlikely that the President will be harmed significantly by what’s going on in Washington right now, and far more likely that the whole thing could blow up in the GOP’s face.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Campaign 2014, Campaign 2016, Congress, Politicians, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Me Me Me says:

    Could? Try already are. Check out that WaPo poll from last week that said on 30% of thought that Congressional Republicans were concentrating on things of importance to the responder.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    As usual with Republicans it’s overreach. They have a perfectly good scandal involving the IRS, but they can’t leave it at that, or even wait for the evidence to develop. They have to start crying, “Impeachment!”

    Hatred gets in the way of strategy.

  3. Jenos Idanian says:

    The only people helped by talk of impeachment at this point are the Obama administration and their sycophants. There’s no reason to rush to judgment; just keep investigating and digging and asking questions. Let the facts be discovered and speak for themselves.

  4. @Jenos Idanian:

    There are prominent Republicans talking about impeachment every day. Or do you not pay attention to reality?

  5. Obama has got what he wanted. It’s all about him.

    He is popular but his ability to drive an agenda is toast. He is tangled and ineffective. The dissonance and dysfunction is helping to drive down the deficits. Whoopee!

  6. Caj says:

    They should backfire on Republicans! Time wasting on so many trivial things when the business of the people and getting people jobs should be their first priority. The Republican Party are not a party for the people, they are a party that only likes power! The power that they have now to block and obstruct anything President Obama wants to get done. As far as I’m concerned they are committing treason as they have made it clear what their agenda is and that is NOT to put country first. Top priority is to do all within their power to ‘stick it’ to President Obama. Not only are they shameful they are an absolute disgrace to the office they hold!

  7. john personna says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    Let the facts be discovered and speak for themselves?

    A recent Fox News poll shows more than two-thirds of American voters believe the federal government is “out of control” and a threat to their liberties. Meanwhile, a separate survey commissioned by WND revealed that more than half of the public supports impeaching President Obama for a series of explosive scandals: spying on journalists, IRS targeting of conservative and Tea Party groups, as well as what has become known as “Benghazigate.” Other major scandals such as the administration’s Fast and Furious gun-running to cartels, executing Americans without trial, and unconstitutional wars were not addressed in the surveys.

    Pretty amazing belief there.

  8. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I’m trying to pay attention to you, Doug, and I’m trying to see any contradiction between what I said, and what you responded with.

    Any “prominent Republicans talking about impeachment every day” aren’t helping their cause in the least.

    Of course, I’ve noticed that you tend to define “prominent Republicans” as any Republican who says or does something stupid that you can use to deride the entire party, regardless of their actual status before they do something stupid…

  9. superdestroyer says:

    Who cares what the Republicans are doing. They are irrelevant. The Democrats have finally achieved their goal that is you tie enough people to the government and create enough automatic Democratic Party voters, that they can be immune to scandal. Much like the voters in Chicago and Illinois could not care less about corruption, most people in the U.S. will not care about scandal in the future.

  10. Jenos Idanian says:

    @john personna: Big whoop. Oh, a poll. I am so undone.

    Tell me, what facts are uncovered or changed by an opinion poll?

  11. anjin-san says:

    Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) told a crowd at a tea party rally that she’s asked every weekend why Congress isn’t working to impeach President Barack Obama.

    “I will tell you, as I have been home in my district, in the sixth district of Minnesota, there isn’t a weekend that hasn’t gone by that someone says to me, ‘Michelle, what in the world are you all waiting for in Congress? Why aren’t you impeaching the president? He’s been making unconstitutional actions since he came into office,'” Bachmann said.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    I guess Republicans have given up on their cherished hope that Obamacare would cause a mass uprising. Could it be because:

    California has unveiled prices that consumers will pay for a selection of health plans offered through the state under the Affordable Care Act, providing a glimpse into how health care reform may look as it is rolled out across the nation.

    Under the federal health care reform law, people who do not get or cannot afford health insurance through their jobs can buy coverage through an exchange, at a group rate negotiated by state regulators.

    The cost to a 40-year-old who needs coverage would vary from about $40 to $300 per month for a mid-level plan in California, depending on income. Some young adults, who are less expensive to cover, could pay nothing, depending on how much they earn.

    The prices in California, along with those announced in Washington, Vermont and other states, show that premiums under “Obamacare” can be more affordable than had previously been thought. Consumer advocates welcomed the new exchange.

    “It’s a revolutionary improvement to move from a broken market where people are charged by how sick they are, to a competitive market where people pay what they can afford, based on a percentage of their income, on a sliding scale,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of advocacy group Health Access.

    “Most consumers buying coverage in the individual market will get financial help and see their premiums go down,” he said.

  13. john personna says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    Did your first sentence change up top? I really thought it said that the only people talking about impeachment were liberals. If I misread it, I apologize. I was just linking to illustrate that it is easy to find crazy impeachment talk.

    If you just wanted to say “none of this impeachment talk is serious,” that’s fine, and I agree. Of course the main thrust of the article is that all the crazy talk, the super-set of crazy talk beyond impeachment, is hurting Republicans. I agree with that too.

  14. anjin-san says:

    @ Let’s Be Free

    Obama has got what he wanted. It’s all about him.

    Perhaps you could provide some evidence that Obama is an egomaniac…

  15. Caj says:

    @anjin-san:

    Republicans are impeachment mad! It’s a pity you can’t impeach a whole party for being complete idiots! This party have totally lost their minds. Little to do they realize that they are becoming more and more irrelevant very day. All this nonsense plays to the base but in the real world where WE all live they look and sound like complete fools.

  16. john personna says:

    @Let’s Be Free:

    If you mean that Republicans have destroyed American governance, in order to screw Obama

    .. in that you are correct, sir!

  17. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t think that most of what’s going on is an Obama problem at all. I think it’s a federal government problem. No one knows anything. No one’s responsible for anything. Everyone’s always received good performance reviews.

    Putting it into math-talk, bureaucracies don’t scale linearly.

    Republicans are very likely to lose the political battle but win the ideological war. The president’s approval rating stays high but his governing philosophy is being cast into disrepute.

  18. john personna says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Surely Republican Congressional approval ratings and Republican Party registrations both trend in a poor direction for “a win.”

  19. PJ says:

    They have to go after Obama because their most important voters demand them too.
    Who are these voters?
    GOP primary voters.

  20. stonetools says:

    The Republicans and their right wing media have whipped up their base into such a frothing hatred of Obama and all things Obama that they really can’t do anything but push these investigations to the limit and beyond. The logical impulse of all this hate mongering is to push for impeachment, because how else can you deal with history’s greatest monster, a Kenyan who shouldn’t even be President?

    The Republicans had better hope that there is something at the end of all these investigations. If there is nothing significant, then Democrats and independents are going to conclude that all these investigations were a big waste of government time and money for partisan gain.

    The Democrats need to be prepared to take full advantage of any backlash against Republican overreach. Hopefully they can parlay this into a chance for the House in 2014.

  21. @Dave Schuler:

    The president’s approval rating stays high but his governing philosophy is being cast into disrepute.

    Yeah, I don’t know about that……..

    None of these “scandals” has anything to do with his governing philosophy, and there’s no “ideological’ upside for the Republicans either. It’s all politics.

  22. Latino_in_Boston says:

    Remember Benghazi!

    – Republicans sometime in 2017 thinking that will help them keep Hillary from winning reelection.

  23. Caj says:

    @stonetools:

    Amen to that idea. If the American peole are smart they will kick all those useless pieces of crap out of Congress in 2014. We need people in there who actually care about the country and getting things done to benefit all.

  24. michael reynolds says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    I’m with Herb on this: I don’t see it. Make a list of all the things the federal government does. Then show me any significant number of those things that the American people want them to stop doing. I doubt it’s much of a list.

    People bitch about the government because it’s expensive and people like to bitch. God knows I love to bitch. But that’s a very different thing than saying, “Okay, so should we do away with the FDA? The EPA? The DoD? FEMA? Social Security? Medicare?”

    In reality people only think they want a smaller federal government because they mistakenly think all the money goes to people defined as, “Not me.” In fact the money does go to all those people who think they get nothing, and when they look at the specifics they invariably decide they want more not less.

    Libertarianism is dead. It died of irrelevance. The job now for conservatives is to find a way to minimize the overreach as liberalism becomes the stated and not just the implicit ideological norm.

  25. Matt Bernius says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    The only people helped by talk of impeachment at this point are the Obama administration and their sycophants.

    Of course, I’ve noticed that you tend to define “prominent Republicans” as any Republican who says or does something stupid that you can use to deride the entire party, regardless of their actual status before they do something stupid

    Could you comment on the following list of Republican Congressional Figures who have discussed impeachment and let us know which ones are *NOT* prominent?

    Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK)
    Calling Benghazi “most egregious cover-up in American history,” the Oklahoma Republican floated the suggestion last week. He predicted that impeachment may no longer be a taboo subject. “People may be starting to use the I-word before too long,” Inhofe said.

    Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT)
    Backing up Inhofe, Chaffetz said Monday that he won’t take the possibility of impeachment off the table because he didn’t know what other details related to Benghazi will emerge. “It’s certainly a possibility,” Chaffetz said, as quoted by the Salt Lake Tribune.

    Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX)
    As the White House readied its gun control proposal in January, Obama said he would implement some of his ideas through executive action. That mere suggestion was enough for Stockman to issue a statement threatening to thwart the White House’s efforts “by any means necessary” — including impeachment.

    Rep. Trey Radel (R-FL)

    The freshman Florida Republican indicated he was receptive to Stockman’s idea, saying in January that “all options should be on the table” as the White House sought gun control measures. Congress, Radel said, “needs to hold the President accountable for the decisions that he’s making right now.”

    Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX)
    Arguably the least surprising inclusion on this list, Gohmert in January blasted Obama, saying the president had “already abused the law enough times that it’s just been staggering.” Gohmert told Newsmax that using an executive order to implement gun laws would be sufficient grounds to impeach Obama. “It’s not a president who steps up and says: ‘You know what? Previous Congresses have passed the law — and it’s been signed into law, and I disagree with it, so I’m just going to create new law — and as I speak, so shall it be,’” Gohmert said.

    Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN)
    It may come as a surprise to some that, when she was asked in 2010 if Obama should be impeached for failure to secure the border, the doyenne of the tea party stopped short of a full-throated endorsement. “Whether or not this is an impeachable offense is one that the Congress would have to make a determination on,” Bachmann said at the time.

    But by 2011, Bachmann was in the throes of a Republican presidential campaign and ready to make a “determination” on impeachment. Asked by a voter in Iowa if she would “impeach him and get him out of the way,” Bachmann said repeatedly that she agreed.

    Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC)
    In the summer of 2011, when he was still a member of the House of Representatives, now-Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) told a tea party group that Obama risked impeachment if he eschewed congressional approval to raise the debt limit. “This president is looking to usurp congressional oversight to find a way to get it done without us,” Scott said. “My position is that is an impeachable act from my perspective.”

    Rep. Steve King (R-IA)
    About the same time as Scott’s remarks, King took to Twitter to declare that discussion of defaulting on the nation’s debt was pretty much a waste of time. Such a scenario would obviously lead to Obama’s impeachment, he said. End of story.1

    @SteveKingIA
    STOP talking about default. The 1st dime of each $1 of revenue services debt. Obama would be impeached if he blocked debt payments. C C & B!
    [Source: http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2013/05/republicans-impeachment-obama.php%5D

    Here are some other examples of Republican Congress members and individuals with national platforms calling for, or threatening, impeachment (either directly or indirectly):
    http://www.salon.com/2013/05/10/impeach_obama_again/

  26. Kari Q says:

    @anjin-san:

    @ Let’s Be Free

    Obama has got what he wanted. It’s all about him.

    Perhaps you could provide some evidence that Obama is an egomaniac…

    Obama thinks he’s the president. There’s your proof right there.

  27. al-Ameda says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    Tell me, what facts are uncovered or changed by an opinion poll?

    Republicans only believe in polling that supports their beliefs.

  28. anjin-san says:

    @ Kari Q

    He’s so, so, uppity…

  29. john personna says:

    @Dave Schuler, @me:

    There is a very good graphic, with both of the trends I mention, here.

  30. Tony W says:

    @stonetools:

    The Republicans had better hope that there is something at the end of all these investigations.

    The investigation itself is red-meat for primary voters in safe districts. Because of 2010 census-redistricting outcomes I predict that the Republicans will not face much in the way of backlash at the House level, but this may be the final nail in the coffin for hopes of retaking the Senate or White House.

  31. Woody says:

    @Tony W:

    The red meat you mention isn’t only for News Corp Nation. So long as the GOP never deviates from shouting IRS! Fast and Furious! Solyndra! BENGHAZIIII! they will never be asked about actual policy from a “reporter with access”.

    Odd-numbered years once featured occasional policy pieces in the traditional media, if only to raise profiles and trial-balloon ideas for next years’ elections. However, the GOP is banking on SCANDAL! to obscure the uncomfortably accurate notion that they have no policies, only slogans. BTW, I believe the strategy will work.

  32. Dave Emanuel says:

    @Doug Mataconis: There are also prominent Republicans NOT talking about impeachment. While many Republican voters would love to see impeachment proceedings begin, and while many myopic Republican politicians are playing to them, the smart ones know it would be a useless exercise– as yet, there’s no evidence Obama has committed an impeachable act. And with all the spin doctors at work, it’s doubtful there will ever be sufficient hard and fast evidence to support impeachment. That’s not an indictment of Obama, it’s an indictment of the reality of politics in the 21st Century.

  33. BackwardsBoy says:

    So all of these scandals (and these are only the most recent) are purely political?

    The are, but only if you ignore their illegality.

  34. Scott O says:

    Ponnuru as the voice of reason. God help us.

  35. al-Ameda says:

    @Dave Emanuel:

    While many Republican voters would love to see impeachment proceedings begin, and while many myopic Republican politicians are playing to them, the smart ones know it would be a useless exercise– as yet, there’s no evidence Obama has committed an impeachable act.

    I believe that they (Republicans) are waiting for the 2014 mid-terms before they seriously take up impeachment. I’ guessing that GOP leadership has made an assessment that voters would turn the House back to Democrats if they move on impeachment now. If on the other hand the Senate goes Republican, then would be no negative consequences whatsoever for the GOP to impeach Obama for no-good-reason.

  36. Matt Bernius says:

    @BackwardsBoy:

    The are, but only if you ignore their illegality.

    Leaving the AP scandal aside for the moment, can you please outline the “illegality” of the other scandals as you understand them?

  37. Matt Bernius says:

    @Dave Emanuel:

    There are also prominent Republicans NOT talking about impeachment.

    Correct. Or more to the point, they (including Rand Paul, Reince Priebus, Karl Rove, and according to some reports Frank Lutz) are specifically saying that their colleagues should not be talking about or pushing for impeachment.

    The problem that these people face is that the Media — both mainstream and Conservative — are not particularly interested in their far less sensational message.

  38. AemJeff says:

    @Matt Bernius: I’ve seen that message in the media – Luntz’s advice seems to have been reported fairly widely just recently. Instead of blaming the media when things don’t work out the way they like, Republicans ought to start looking at the underlying facts. One fact that stands out in particular, at the moment, is that irrational behavior and/or rhetoric seems to have become acceptable to a highly visible faction on the Right. (That’s not to be read as if I’ve just said there exists no “irrational behavior and/or rhetoric” on the Left.)

  39. Matt Bernius says:

    @AemJeff:

    I’ve seen that message in the media – Luntz’s advice seems to have been reported fairly widely just recently. Instead of blaming the media when things don’t work out the way they like, Republicans ought to start looking at the underlying facts.

    To be clear, I wasn’t blaming the media. And to your larger point, if you reread my comment, you’ll note that I said “mainstream and conservative media” are not particularly interested in covering Republicans who are trying to calm things down.

    The fact is that the Republicans have sewn the wind and are currently reaping the whirl wind. And that provides a good story for mainstream media — sensational statements always do. Further, the Republicans who are speaking out against impeachment talk will get *some* coverage — but primarily because it’s helping set up another sensational story: the continued fragmentation and in-fighting within the party.

    But to be completely clear, conservative media isn’t interested in seriously covering call’s by Republican leaders to “STFU on Impeachment already!” The reason for that is that conservative media are the lead drummers on the impeachment talks — in particular the talkers — which to your point, means that they are continuing to sew the call for Obama’s head.

    My point, wasn’t blame the media (though there is definitely some blame to be placed at the foot of Conservative media). It’s just simply to say that no media is really “on the side” of the “STFU on impeachment” side of the equation.

    I do think it’s ironic that some of the STFU folks are ending up getting bit by the very institutions that they helped foster and, also, helped bring them to national prominence. Again, sewing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.

  40. AemJeff says:

    @Matt Bernius: Thanks for clarifying. My response was obviously based on a too simple read of what you were saying, and I generally agree with you here. The GOP seems caught in a pattern that’s threatening to overwhelm their ability to deliver a constructive, or even coherent message. I don’t know how they solve that. The deeper irony is that, even as a liberal, I want to see two functional parties. It seems as if a substantial fraction of that party doesn’t quite see their current status as a problem, and to the extent that they do, they’re still blaming externalities like the “MSM.” Conservative media has no incentive to change, the base is what it is, and the leadership risks alienating both when strategic issues are put on table.

  41. pylon says:

    While I think the IRS was waaaaay offside, one of the ways this backfires on the right is by shining a light on the whole 501(c)(4) exemption, which is IMO being abused big time.

  42. Barry says:

    “By trying to turn everything into a scandal rather than saying Obama’s policies are wrongheaded—and rather than fixing their own image problems with minority, female, younger, and moderate voters—Republicans are focusing on attacking a guy whose name will never again appear on a ballot.”

    The GOP doesn’t want to focus too much on Obama’s policies, because theirs are worse.
    As for ‘a guy whose name will never again appear on a ballot’, they’re figuring that they can tar any successor. Frankly, it worked with Gore. He was running for the third term of a successful administration in a booming economy, but still lost.