Tuesday, May 14, 2013


It's a perfect-storm of breaking scandals as the Obama administration enters its second term. Let's take a look at what's going on and what the likely fallout is going to be.

It's That Time Of Year
Business Insider notes that (a) this is prime-time for some scandals (second term, no major news) and (b) what's on the table (if not Obama's head on a platter) is the 2014 midterm elections:

Indeed, these stories are coming at the perfect time for peak scandal coverages. Brendan Nyhan notes that scandals more often happen when the president is detested by members of the other party, as Obama is. Likewise, they are more likely to become big news when there aren't other news stories like the Boston bombings. Finally, scandals are more likely to take place in the beginning of the second term.
Therefore, the question is whether declining trust in the government has historically played a major factor in midterm elections. It turns out that it does. When trust in government falls, the party in the White House tends to do worse in midterm elections.
Let's take a look at the current state of breaking scandals (and Fast and Furious because, why not) and see what they look like comparatively.

Fast And Furious
The Scandal: A justice department program to track guns sold to Mexican cartels allowed hundreds of weapons to illegally cross the boarder and arm narco-soldiers. Boarder agent Brian Terry was shot and killed with one of these guns. The charges are that the program was poorly conceived ("Let's give the bad guys more guns--what could go wrong!?") and also miss-managed. Less publicized: something similar happened under the Bush administration.

Reach: This was more or less a 'sound-and-furry' scandal which was heavily promoted by conservative media and received little attention elsewhere. The message was complicated by the fact that the charges were promoted as something like Iran-Contra while the reality was more about mid-level managerial incompetence. It also didn't help that, probably, the media led most people to think of Vin Diesel.

Damage Assessment: Fast and Furious, ultimately, got nothing and (perhaps) made it look like the GOP was crying wolf.

Lesson: Name your next quasi-legal operation Star Wars Episode VII.

The Scandal: On 9/11 2012 a terrorist attack in Libya killed four Americans including our ambassador. The GOP charged that (a) the administration was asleep at the wheel and should have done something to save our people, (b) that the administration lied and lied hard in the days following to claim it was not terrorism (but rather a protest gone wrong ... with mortar shells), (c) that there was a cover-up possibly involving the CIA selling weapons to Syria (or something), and (d) that there was procedural mis-management that led, ultimately to Hillary Clinton who had better not run in 2016 ... just saying.

Reach: The Benghazi scandal got decent coverage--with ABC and CBS, despite the GOP narrative, breaking key elements--but it never got the coverage that the Republican base wanted. This was further complicated by the fact that during the most recent go-round the (emotional) hearings were trumped by the Cleveland Kidnapping case. This moved Rush Limbaugh to opine that 'The administration had gotten away with it.'

Damage Assessment: The Obama-damage was (a) three fired staffers (from the internal investigation which did, indeed, find some incompetence) and (b) Susan Rice who might've been Secretary of State. The real damage, however, was Mitt Romney who issued a foot-in-mouth press release the day of the attack and then fumbled his line of attack in the second debate.
Lesson: Go after Hillary first--everything else was nonsense.

IRS Gate
The Scandal: The IRS was intentionally targeting conservative groups based on whether or not they sounded patriotic. They issued a weak "uh ... we're sorry--but it wasn't that bad." It turns out, on inspection, it was that bad.

Reach: Deep. John Stewart ripped the Obama administration last night and it looks like there's no mitigating circumstances here. It's not, after all, like the IRS probes discovered these groups were cheating on their taxes or anything. What it appears, however, is that there is little to tie this to anyone outside the IRS.

Damage Assessment: The main damage will be to the trust-level of the population and 2014 elections. This will motivate the GOP base and breathe new life into the Tea Party. Furthermore, with a boost from the related scandals, this one will lend credibility to, for example, Benghazi.
Meter is purple because it's not played out yet
Lesson: Do your damn job, IRS guys.

AP Gate
The Scandal: The Justice Department apparently obtained a massive group of phone records from AP reporters trying to find out who sourced a leak to them. This is possibly "quasi-legal" under the PATRIOT Act but the breadth of the search seems to be (a) unprecedented and (b) a chilling intrusion against the press who would like to be able to use anonymous sources without having to worry that everyone's phone records will be checked. NOTE: To my knowledge, the data is only who-called-who and not the conversations or any call content.

Reach: It's getting major play and AP has a pretty loud bull-horn. Combined with the IRS story, this will get play. To be clear: the issue here is not precisely the legality ... the illegality ... or the cover-up of the event (I'm not clear on that)--it's that (a) whatever else is true, it looks bad and (b) the IRS-Scandal acts as a sort of "booster rocket" / complimentary wave-form which amplifies whatever is wrong with the AP probe.

The AP thing, by itself, might turn out to be nothing--but combined with the for-real and for-real-really-bad IRS scandal, this thing is, at best a molehill on top of a mountain.

Damage Assessment: I'm going to go with Eric Holder. It's, maybe, a bit optimistic--but the Obama administration will need to do something serious to put some daylight between him and this wave of scandals and canning Holder might do that. We'll see.

Lesson: Abuse of power is a poison.

What Do I Think?
I have three observations:
  1. So far none of these look like they may reach the impeachment level (although if the Republicans take the Senate in 2014 that may happen). If the GOP had played its cards more carefully with Fast and Furious and Benghazi they might be better positioned to capitalize on the current, real, scandals. They would be well advised to play their cards carefully here and make strategic--rather than base-oriented tactical--decisions.
  2. The political terrain is, of course, all about Hillary. That's what Benghazi Part 2 (3?) looked like to a lot of people and, of course, it was (whatever else it was about, it certainly was also about Hillary '16). If the GOP had gone after her first instead of Obama, then Rice, then Hillary ... they might've got her.
  3. Team Obama is already having a narrative crisis around not being able to do anything. While this appears to be 'the Republican's fault' they have a card to play (give us the House in 2014!)--these scandals make it look like maybe they don't deserve it. They are a gift to the GOP under these conditions: this is exactly what Obama didn't want to happen.

1 comment:

  1. Conservatives don't care about the AP scandal since they view the AP as being part of the "other team." Of course it's by far the most important of all.