“The Media Has Cast Its Traditional Role Aside”: Washington Circus Steals The Spotlight From Where It Belongs
Can President Barack Obama put out the brush fires that are sucking the air out of his second-term agenda? Can he stop the spread of mini-scandals that are consuming Washington?
No, he cannot. The president could (unconstitutionally) shutter every Internal Revenue Service office and fire every staffer, from top-ranking executives to lowly administrative aides, and it would hardly matter. Republicans would simply change the terms of the debate and impeach him for destroying the 16th Amendment.
Official Washington is now all spectacle, all circus, all manufactured outrage abetted by a press corps addicted to controversy. Actual policies are slighted while political posturing takes the stage; simmering problems are ignored while canned contretemps and stale theater consume all the attention. That has been true for years now, but it just keeps getting worse.
There are serious failings at the heart of each of the sideshows currently consuming officialdom. The most egregious concerns the IRS, where bureaucrats singled out conservative groups for a vetting that veered into political harassment. That not only violates deep-rooted ideals of fairness and justice, but it also contravenes federal law. It raises the specter of the sort of political harassment carried out by Richard Nixon, who wielded the IRS as a bludgeon against his political adversaries, and by J. Edgar Hoover, who ordered tax audits of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
While IRS-gate reflects poorly on Obama’s leadership, there is not a scintilla of evidence that he had anything to do with it. Further, the president has responded with aplomb: He has forced the resignation of the acting head of the agency as the FBI launches a criminal investigation. (That’s about all the administration can do since federal rules insulate IRS bureaucrats from elected officials, all in an effort to prevent scandals such as those mentioned above.)
If Republicans doubt the president’s ability to impartially oversee an investigation of his own administration, they might appoint a special prosecutor. Instead, they have promised more hearings on Capitol Hill — more partisan spectacle, more canned outrage, more useless theater.
Though the national press corps sticks to its unwritten rule of blaming Democrats and Republicans equally for the mess our national politics have become, the facts show that responsibility cannot be equally apportioned. Democrats don’t eschew partisan mudslinging, but they are not very good at it. The GOP, by contrast, has raised it to an art form.
Take a look at the last two presidential administrations. Though Bill Clinton reigned over an era of peace, prosperity and a balanced budget, the GOP impeached him on charges that grew out of an adulterous affair. George W. Bush took the country to war on the wings of a lie, tortured detainees and wrecked the budget. Democrats pointed fingers and conducted investigations, but they did not impeach him.
The news media, meanwhile, breathlessly report every email, every accusation, every pointed finger. They parse political winners and losers. Will the Benghazi hearings damage Hillary Clinton’s chances for the presidency in 2016? Will the IRS controversy hurt immigration reform? Will the controversies heal Republicans’ internal divisions?
As much as it troubles me to say so, Washington journalists have cast aside their traditional roles as trumpets of a substantive truth. They rarely uncover genuine abuses of power, cast a skeptical eye on untoward developments (such as the warmongering that led to the invasion of Iraq) or even explain the nuances of policy. Heck, they barely bother to inform the public when yesterday’s huge scandal becomes suddenly less, well, scandalous.
Take the budget deficits. Wasn’t it just two months ago that Republicans were insisting that the Obama administration was sending the entire nation to the poorhouse? What happened to those deficits?
As it turns out, they are shrinking, just as many mainstream economists had predicted. As the economy recovers, the federal government pays out less in assistance and takes in more in taxes.
You haven’t heard a lot of chatter about that or about the people hurt by the continuing cuts that were supposedly made necessary by that looming deficit. Many struggling Americans are finding their childcare options limited, their community clinics closed, their assistance for housing and meals shrinking — with little notice from official Washington. That’s the real scandal.
By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, May 18, 2013
Now that we know a GOP congressional aide misleadingly edited — intentionally or not — Obama administration emails on the Benghazi attack, one wonders if he or she will face repercussions. There’s some precedent here. Former GOP Rep. Dan Burton used to hold Darrell Issa’s job as Chairman of the House Oversight Committee and used it to aggressively go after Bill Clinton on a host of controversies of various degrees of merit, much as Issa is doing now.
In 1998, as Burton was investigating alleged campaign finance violations from Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign, his office released a doctored transcript of an audiotape of a former Clinton aide. Burton’s top aide took the blame for the deception and resigned, as the New York Times reported on May 7, 1998:
The top investigator for the House inquiry into President Clinton’s 1996 campaign finance practices resigned under pressure today, amid growing bipartisan criticism of his role in releasing edited tapes of Webster L. Hubbell’s jailhouse conversations. The aide, David N. Bossie, has been for 18 months the point man and alter ego of the inquiry’s chairman, Representative Dan Burton, the Indiana Republican who heads the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. But since Mr. Burton released transcripts of some of Mr. Hubbell’s prison conversations late last week, the lawmaker has weathered intense attacks by Democrats maintaining that exculpatory information was edited out of the transcripts.
The situation is a good analog for the Benghazi emails in that Republicans made some small alterations to otherwise accurate raw information which fundamentally changed the meaning to advance their political agenda.
The difference is that other Republicans joined Democrats in expressing outrage at the misleading editing 15 years ago. Burton even had to apologize to fellow Republicans after then-Speaker Newt Gingrich said Burton was running the investigation like a “circus.”
Today, at least so far, Republicans have been mum on the apparent tampering of White House emails for political gain by one of their own. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the GOP staffers who leaked the Benghazi emails made an honest mistake when transcribing emails they were shown in a closed-door briefing with intelligence officials, but no one has come forward with an explanation and a mea culpa.
Meanwhile, Democrats were not satisfied with Bossie’s resignation. They noted that Burton himself released the transcript, and they called on the congressman to resign as well. “A committee staff member should not be made the scapegoat for Chairman Burton’s mistakes, missteps and misdeeds,” then-House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt said. Indeed, Burton himself said, “I take responsibility for those mistakes,” but never resigned or faced censure.
We still don’t know the full story of the edited Benghazi emails, but if someone intentionally fabricated information and then leaked it to reporters, that would seem to undermine the credibility of the entire investigation. Obama has fired someone for less this week.
By: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, May 17, 2013
“Why Scandal Politics Don’t Work”: Perhaps Republicans Should Focus On A More Effective Use Of Their Time
A president’s critics can’t help themselves when the whiff of scandal is in the air. Yet more often than not, the obsessive pursuit of scandal fails to lift the political prospects of the opposition party.
Republicans might want to pause and ask themselves: Is flogging Benghazi, the IRS, and the Associated Press really the best way to get the majority back?
Every party on the outside of the White House envisions replicating Watergate — forcing a president out of office and riding the aftermath to an Election Day triumph. But the post-Watergate scandal-mongering record falls far short of that holy political grail.
The Iran-Contra affair may be a blot on the Reagan record, but it didn’t propel Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis into the White House. During his convention speech, he tried to tar then-Vice-President George H. W. Bush for “sit[ting] silently by when somebody at the National Security Council comes up with the cockamamie idea that we should trade arms to the Ayatollah for hostages.” A few days later, Dukakis also tried to make hay with a less-remembered scandal involving fraudulent procurement in the Pentagon. “A fish rots from the head first,” said Dukakis, in some of his harshest words of the campaign. His emphasis on ethics were soon drowned out with a barrage of attacks regarding his views on national security and crime.
Ten years later, with Bill Clinton in the Oval Office, Republicans took scandal-mongering to new heights. Charging the president with perjury and obstruction of justice to cover up his extramarital affair, the House Judiciary Committee advanced articles of impeachment one month before the 1998 congressional midterm elections. The opposition party historically gains seats at the “six-year itch” point of a president’s tenure. But the backlash from the impeachment obsession allowed Democrats to pick up five House seats. Speaker Newt Gingrich was compelled to quit Congress. House Republicans barreled ahead and formally impeached Clinton anyway. Clinton’s approval rating then spiked above 70 percent.
During George W. Bush’s first term, Democrats sought to drive outrage surrounding the Abu Gharib torture scandal and, to a lesser extent, the outing of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame. Michael Moore sought to spark a scandal with his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which characterized Bush’s foreign policy and energy policy as flowing from a scandalous relationship with Saudi Arabia. John Kerry’s acceptance speech, delivered one month after the movie was released, called for “an America that relies on its ingenuity and innovation, not the Saudi royal family.” A well-financed independent group, The Media Fund, aired a series of ads criticizing Bush’s Saudi ties. Bush ended up winning the popular vote (unlike 2000).
As for President Obama — the conservative cries of “Solyndra” and “Fast and Furious” failed to interrupt his march to a second term.
Why do scandal politics usually fail? Of course, some scandals fizzle out because the charges lack merit or import. But as you see above, even more significant scandals can lack political punch. Perhaps that is because by attempting to quickly topple the president and short-cut a path the White House, the attackers end up distracting themselves from their own primary mission: discrediting the president’s ideology and substantive agenda in the eyes of the public, and elevating their own.
A more plausible objective, short of impeachment or electoral gains, would be to consume a White House with scandal management and distract the administration from executing the president’s agenda. But for today’s Republicans, that objective doesn’t make much sense. Obama’s main legislative goal this year is shared by leading Republicans: immigration reform.
In fact, pro-immigration Republicans may be stoking the fires about Benghazi, the IRS and the AP not to distract the president, but to distract fellow conservatives who otherwise would rally the Tea Party base to pressure Congress and undermine the bipartisan Senate bill. As the Daily Caller’s Mickey Kaus told BuzzFeed: “I think these distracting scandals actually help its chances of passing. Every time [the bill] is at center stage, its chances of passing go down.”
And note that some of Obama’s chief antagonists on Benghazi — Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham — are also Obama’s key shepherds of immigration reform.
For those conservatives more deeply opposed to President Obama’s agenda, they should ask themselves: Do we really think any of these “scandals” seriously threaten President Obama’s hold on the Oval Office? And if they don’t, might there be a better use of our time?
By: Bill Scher, The Week, May 16, 2013
President Obama’s most fevered critics have been waiting for a national “aha” moment since he was first inaugurated more than 50 months ago. Coming off an electoral landslide, Obama was instantly greeted by a mob-like movement on the far right that denounced him as a socialist and a communist. Excited conservatives quickly reached for Nazi rhetoric and imagery in an effort to convey the dark threat the Democrat posed to the country.
Amplified by Fox News and a well-funded right-wing media industry, the “grassroots” revolt was portrayed as a sweeping rebuke of Obama. But in truth, the raging critics occupied the loud fringes, a fact confirmed by Obama’s easy re-election.
Still, professional detractors have held out hope that at some point Americans would come to see Obama as they see Obama; as a monster of historic proportions who’s committed to stripping citizens of their liberties and getting them addicted to government dependencies, like a drug dealer.
This week’s House Oversight Committee hearing into the Sept. 11 terror attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was supposed to trigger that “aha” event. It was supposed to be The Day Americans Turned On Obama. Indeed, Obama wouldn’t be able to finish out his second term because the Benghazi revelations were going to be so damaging, Fox New’s Mike Huckabee told his radio listeners. And Sean Hannity warned ominously that, “This is going to be a really defining, important week in the Obama presidency, and it’s not going to be a good week.”
But none of that happened at the hearing. Instead of being the kind of “explosive” Watergate-style hearing that Fox talkers prayed for, Wednesday’s hearing sagged under the weight of stubborn facts, and didn’t even reach the level of Whitewater hearings, which under Bill Clinton established the modern-day mark for pointlessly partisan “scandal” hearings.
Not that it matters to the media players who produced the Benghazi hearings, though. Conservatives continue their Groundhog Day charade, reassuring themselves that the hearing was a hit and that scandal “bombshells” exploded on Capitol Hill. (They did not.)
The larger, common sense question that lingers though is, why? Why keep pounding a story so far into the ground that most news consumers can’t even make sense of the convoluted allegations anymore?
I think the explanation for the durability is that Benghazi serves as an all-purpose platform that allows the most hardened critics to project their anti-Obama madness. It allows them to spin their ugliest fantasies about the president and to depict him as a heartless traitor who chose to let Americans die at the hands of Islamic terrorists. It’s a way to condemn Obama for having a “reflexive impulse to blame, rather than defend, America.”
For the last eight months, Benghazi has served as a convenient vessel to ferry around the right wing’s Capt. Ahab-like obsession. Most often docked at Fox News, which has referenced “Benghazi” thousands and thousands and thousands of times since last September, the terror attack represents a way to feed that sinister fixation about the president being a Manchurian Candidate who let Americans die in Benghazi and “sacrificed American lives for politics.”
Benghazi mania is driven by a dark obsession with Obama that’s built upon the assumption that he’s capable of the very worst and incapable of anything good or decent. That the president of the United States does not deserve to sit in the Oval Office because his loyalties (not to mention his origins) are in doubt. Which is supposedly why he would abandon Americans to die in Benghazi.
Note some of the rhetoric this week, which portrayed Obama as unfit and un-American. From Fox News’ Todd Starnes:
“If Obama won’t protect four Americans under attack in Benghazi, what makes you think he’ll protect the rest of us?”
And from talk show host Mark Levin [emphasis added]:
It’s just unbelievable that our country didn’t come to the defense of these men. It makes me sick to my stomach. It’s not a natural reaction if you’re a red-blooded American. My God, send in the military! But no, we didn’t… What the hell kind of commander in chief is that? Let me go further, what kind of an American is that?
What kind of American is Obama if he won’t protect citizens under attack?
As Marc Ambinder at The Week noted, if you follow the premise of the Republican’s vast conspiracy that suggests the White House deliberately let people die in Benghazi because they feared the political fallout of a terror attack, you’d have to assume Obama “is simply and utterly evil.” Ambinder is right, and they do believe it.
Which is to say, Benghazi as it’s debated and presented today (and will be for months to come), isn’t just about Benghazi, or the four Americans who died in the attack or the dozens more injured. It’s about Obama and a blinding, uncontrollable anger that fuels his most dedicated foes, and their relentless, futile search for the American “aha” moment.
Two decades ago, radical Republicans waged an eight-year campaign against Bill Clinton because Republicans were convinced he was a crook and a scoundrel. We’re now past the halfway mark of another eight-year Republican war against a Democratic president. This one is fueled by the belief the president, as a person, is utterly beneath contempt. (It’s one reason Fox talkers so easily, and so crassly, invoke Obama’s children when launching political attacks.)
The Benghazi narrative gives the fevered swamp denizens a ready-made framework to project their fears and hatred onto Obama and to do it in the context of “news.” And that’s why, despite this week’s hearing which didn’t advance the story forward one inch, the Benghazi narrative isn’t going away anytime soon.
By: Eric Boehlert, The Blog, The Hufington Post, May 10, 2013
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has released an important new report that details Barack Obama’s record on nominating judges during his first term. It’s no surprise: Republican obstruction against his selections was unprecedented. For example:
President Obama is the only one of the five most recent Presidents for whom, during his first term, both the average and median waiting time from nomination to confirmation for circuit and district court nominees was greater than half a calendar year (i.e., more than 182 days).
A quick look at the report’s summary confirms that Obama’s nominees have been treated more roughly than those of Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and the other Bush.
That’s only half the story. George H.W. Bush had to deal with an opposition party Senate for his entire first term, and Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had that during about half of their first terms. It’s at least plausibly legitimate for opposite party Senators, when they have the majority, to argue that they should have a larger role in filling judicial vacancies, and to act accordingly. At the very least, if they simply oppose some of those nominees, they will defeat them in “up or down” votes.
But Obama, like Ronald Reagan, had a same-party Senate majority during his first term. He should have had among the best results over any recent president, all things being equal.
What changed when Obama took office, however, was the extension of the filibuster to cover every single nominee. Republicans didn’t always vote against cloture (or even demand cloture votes), but they did demand 60 votes for every nominee. That’s brand new. It’s true that Democrats filibustered selected judicial nominations during the George W. Bush presidency, but only at the circuit court level, and not every single one.
That meant that despite solid Democratic majorities and solid support from those Democrats, Obama’s judicial approval statistics are basically the worse of any of the recent presidents. He doesn’t show up last on every measure — for example, George H.W. Bush had a lower percentage of district court nominees confirmed — but he’s fourth or fifth out of five of these presidents on almost every way that CRS slices the numbers, and it adds up to by far the most obstruction faced by any recent president.
And remember: the losers here aren’t just the president and liberals who want to see his judges on the bench. Ordinary people who just want to get their legal matters taken care of promptly have suffered because of all the vacancies on federal courts.
It’s really a disgrace. Especially those picks that were delayed for months, only to wind up getting confirmed by unanimous votes. Especially the foot-dragging on district court nominees. Just a disgrace.
By: Jonathan Bernstein, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, May 3, 2013