The “Obama Scandals” Could Backfire On Republicans
The GOP's latest investigatory crusade could end up backfiring on them.
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.