“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
There’s a not-so-subtle theme in much of the day’s political coverage, which is tough to miss.
House Republicans say they will not overreach on probing the Obama administration, having learned lessons from investigating the Monica Lewinsky scandal during the Clinton administration.
The most pressing question for Congressional Republicans is no longer how to finesse changes to immigration law or gun control, but how far they can push their cases against President Obama without inciting a backlash of the sort that has left them staggering in the past.
Republicans are worried one thing could screw up the political gift of three Obama administration controversies at once: fellow Republicans. Top GOP leaders are privately warning members to put a sock in it when it comes to silly calls for impeachment or over-the-top comparisons to Watergate. They want members to focus on months of fact-finding investigations — not rhetorical fury.
As a strategic matter, this certainly makes sense. Congressional Republicans don’t have any real incentive to overreach — much of the media is already eagerly running with the “White House in crisis!” narrative; the GOP base is already riled up; the stories can be dragged out for months with investigations and hearings; and all of this happening despite no evidence of wrongdoing from anyone at the White House.
Indeed, Republican leaders have every reason not to overreach. It’s easy to imagine the Democratic base rallying in response to a perceived effort to tear down President Obama, without cause, thanks to dubious scandals embraced by the GOP and the Beltway media. It is, after all, what happened in 1998, so there’s recent precedent to be aware of.
What’s more, don’t underestimate the potential for a backlash from mainstream voters outside either party’s base, who may also have a limited appetite for endless investigations. Incumbent Republicans running in the 2014 midterms should probably be cautious about telling voters, “I ignored job creation, but vote for me anyway because I participated in 11 Benghazi hearings.”
And yet, despite all of this, many congressional Republicans are already overreaching and the advice about caution is already being ignored.
I can appreciate the image GOP leaders are eager to convey: congressional Republicans are being serious and deliberate, seeking answers to legitimate questions without flying off the handle and making wild, baseless accusations. The more Americans see a reasonable and methodical process, the less likely they are to perceive an unhinged partisan vendetta.
But aren’t we well past that point? Can anyone seriously characterize congressional Republicans as “serious and deliberate” when it comes to alleging Obama administration wrongdoing?
TPM ran a list the other day of GOP lawmakers who are already speaking publicly about possibly impeaching President Obama. Has the president committed any high crimes? Well, no. In fact, none of the current controversies seem to relate to the White House at all. But the list of Republicans throwing around the “I” word is already pretty long. Indeed, Republicans can’t seem to make up their minds as to why they should impeach the president, but they seem to enjoy talking about it anyway.
It’s against the backdrop that Boehner & Co. are urging caution and hoping to avoid overreach? I think it’s a little late for that.
Update: GOP lawmakers have spent the last couple of days trying to argue that the IRS mess is a good reason to undermine the Affordable Care Act. That’s foolish, but more importantly, it’s also a good example of overreach.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 17, 2013
I have watched in recent days as a parade of conservatives have used specific and real governmental missteps to justify their wide-ranging paranoia and irrational hostilities. “Aha!”
You have to take their glee in sorrow with a grain of salt. For them this is more about their scandal lust than what’s scandalous. These people have been searching for a scandal — Kenyan birth certificates and a Michelle Obama “whitey” tape — for years. The fact that they now have something solid and not made of sand is going to make sad souls happy. That’s to be expected.
What’s not to be expected — but has become depressingly predictable — is to watch liberals rending their garments and gnashing their teeth in woe-is-us doom chanting. The overreaction is exhausting and embarrassing.
Let’s say what this confluence of missteps is and what it is not — at least as the evidence now suggests.
First, the three issues — Benghazi, the targeting of conservative groups by the I.R.S. and the Department of Justice’s monitoring of Associated Press journalists — appear to be completely unrelated, try as politicians and pundits may to connect them. Second, the president does not appear to have had any direct involvement in any of the episodes. Third, their weight and resonances differ greatly, although all could be diminished by their emerging concurrently.
At this point, this is about flaws of procedures — some possibly illegal, all very disturbing — and problems of perception. But they are neither fatal nor unfixable.
Now, let’s separate the well-worn Benghazi witch hunt from the other two. From all appearances that is just a callous use of a tragic event to take a political slap at President Obama and a stab at the likely Democratic presidential heavyweight Hillary Clinton. It is being conducted by hyperpartisan politicians and aggravated by Fox News, both with a stake in justifying their unjustifiable contempt for this Democratic administration, and foiling the next one.
But Americans appear to be tiring of all that chasing of smoke and little finding of fire.
According to a Pew Research Center poll issued this week, the percentage of Americans closely following the Benghazi news has continued to fall. Less than half of the respondents believe that the Obama administration has been dishonest, while almost as many say that the Republicans have gone too far in the hearings. At least one in five don’t know either way.
According to the Pew Poll:
“About half (56 percent) of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they regularly watch the Fox News channel, and this group is particularly frustrated over the Benghazi situation. Fully 79 percent of Republicans who regularly watch Fox News say the Obama administration has been dishonest, compared with 60 percent of Republicans who don’t watch Fox regularly. Nearly half (46 percent) of Republicans who regularly watch Fox News say they are following the story very closely — compared with 23 percent among other Republicans. Those who regularly watch Fox News are also far more critical of the news media: 59 percent say the hearings have not received sufficient coverage by the news media.”
On the I.R.S. scandal, however, it certainly appears that the agency behaved stupidly. Not because they sought to scrutinize the mockery that is these 501(c)4 “social welfare” groups, but because they did so unevenly. But what will be left after all the hue and cry? As the Notre Dame law professor Lloyd Mayer told the Christian Science Monitor this week:
“What has been missed in the outrage is the recognition that this problem arose from much deeper sources than the poor judgment or possible partisan bias of a handful of I.R.S. employees.”
“Congress has given the I.R.S. the difficult task of applying an incredibly vague definition of political activity and an uncertain standard for how much political activity tax-exempt social welfare organizations may engage in.”
That, in the end, is the real scandal.
And now to the Associated Press scandal. The Justice Department was just wrong in the employ of its dragnet, and the administration — as represented by a spokesman, Jay Carney — was disingenuous in its insistence that the administration supports “unfettered” journalism. It just doesn’t. But we’ve always known that, at least we in the media have. The scandal here is that an atmosphere of intolerance for leaks — which Republicans ironically accused the Obama administration of encouraging — seems to have overtaken the Justice Department.
On Wednesday the White House took steps to mitigate the damage, releasing more than 100 pages of Benghazi talking point e-mails, seeking to revive a shield law for reporters who refused to disclose confidential sources, and having the president himself deliver a statement on the I.R.S. In it he announced the resignation of the acting commissioner of the agency, the implementation of new safeguards and a pledge to work with Congress in investigating the matter. As the president said, “The good news is that it’s fixable.” And, it is.
That’s it — the gist of all three as far as we know at this point. These are not administration-enders. People can be punished, or fired or even jailed, if Speaker John Boehner has his way, but at this early stage signs are not pointing to any of those people being in the White House.
Even if I had hair, I wouldn’t be setting it on fire, not yet anyway.
By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 15, 2013
The emergence of nonprofits  as the leading conduit for anonymous spending in this year’s presidential campaign is often attributed to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United  ruling, which opened the money spigot, allowing corporations and unions to buy ads urging people to vote for or against specific candidates.
But a closer look  shows that there are several reasons that tens of millions of dollars of secret money are flooding this year’s campaign. Actions — and inaction — by both the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service have contributed just as much to the flood of tens of millions of dollars of secret money into the 2012 campaign. Congress did not act on a bill that would have required disclosure after Citizens United and other court rulings opened the door to secret political spending.
To understand how all this happened, it’s worth returning to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion  in Citizens United, and the political system the court envisioned. In the decision’s key finding, Kennedy and four other justices said the First Amendment entitled corporations and unions to the same unlimited rights of political speech and spending as any citizen.
But in a less-noticed portion of the ruling, Kennedy and seven of his colleagues upheld disclosure rules and emphasized the role of transparency. Undue corporate or union influence on elections, he wrote, could be addressed by informed voters and shareholders who would instantly access campaign finance facts from their laptops or smart phones.
“With the advent of the Internet,” Kennedy wrote, “prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters.”
If a company wasted money on politics, the justices agreed, its shareholders could use the publicly available information to “determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits.” Separately, the sunshine of public disclosure will let “citizens see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.”
“The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way,” Kennedy concluded. “This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
A very different system has taken shape. As our reporting this week showed, money for political ads is pouring into non-profits ostensibly dedicated to promoting social welfare. These groups are paying for many of the negative ads clogging the airwaves, but are not disclosing their donors.
As a result, it’s entirely unclear whether these ads are being paid for by unions and corporations empowered by Citizens United or by wealthy individuals.
Separately, corporations have resisted calls  to list their donations to political social welfare nonprofits or other political spending. So far, the Securities and Exchange Commission has not responded to a rulemaking petition  asking for it to develop rules to require public companies to disclose that spending.
The Supreme Court’s opening of the door to hefty flows of secret money began years before Citizens United. In a 2007 case (PDF)  involving a nonprofit called Wisconsin Right to Life , the justices ruled that unions and corporations could buy ads that mentioned a candidate in the weeks before an election as long as the commercials stopped short of directly advocating the candidate’s election or defeat. Even if these ads, known as “electioneering communications,” clearly attacked the positions of one candidate, they were permissible unless they were “susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate.”
The flood began and the identities of hardly any of the donors were disclosed. The reason? A decision by the FEC, the oversight panel with three Republicans and three Democrats who frequently deadlock.
After Wisconsin Right to Life, the FEC told social welfare nonprofits that they had to disclose only if the donors specifically earmarked the money for political ads. “It proved to be the exception that swallowed the rule,” said Paul S. Ryan, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit, non-partisan group that tracks campaign finance. The day the FEC adopted this rule, Ryan wrote on his blog that it would allow massive amounts of secret money into politics. He proved correct.
In 2006, ads bought by groups that didn’t disclose their donors amounted to less than 2 percent of outside spending, excluding party committees, research by the Center for Responsive Politics  shows. By 2008, that number hit 25 percent; by 2010, more than 40 percent.
All of this raises an intriguing question: Was Kennedy aware when he drafted the January 2010 Citizens United opinion that nonprofits were being widely used to avoid public disclosure of political spending?
At the least, critics say, Kennedy was poorly informed.
“Justice Kennedy was living in a fantasy land,” said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who tracks campaign finance issues. “I wish the world he envisaged exists. It doesn’t.”
Instead, this is the disclosure world that exists: Someone who gives up to $2,500 to the campaign of President Barack Obama or challenger Mitt Romney will have his or her name, address and profession listed on the FEC website for all to see. But that same person can give $1 million or more to a social welfare group that buys ads supporting or attacking those same candidates and stay anonymous.
This year, a federal judge struck down the FEC rule stemming from Wisconsin Right to Life. The FEC announced in July that major donors to electioneering communications — ads that focus on issues without directly advocating for candidates — would have to be named.
Already, groups are looking for work-arounds. They’re running different kinds of ads. Some will name other social welfare nonprofits as their donors.
The loose oversight by the FEC helped bring so much anonymous money into campaign finance. But no one expects the commission to take a more assertive role anytime soon. Dan Backer, a lawyer who represents several conservative nonprofits, likened the deadlocked agency to a “cute bunny” while referring to the IRS as a “500-pound gorilla.”
The IRS or Congress are more plausible avenues for change, experts say. Ryan said he was hopeful that Congress and the IRS might some day limit ads from groups that don’t disclose their donors. The 2012 campaign, though, appears to be a lost cause. “I think this election will be mired and perhaps overwhelmed by secret money,” Ryan said.
By: Stephen Engelberg and Kim Barker, ProPublica, August 23, 2012
Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS is allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money on attack ads in battlegrounds states—without ever disclosing a single donor—because it has protected status as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization. Unlike Super PACs, which must disclose donors, Crossroads GPS and other groups don’t have to disclose because they supposedly don’t have political activity as a primary purpose, and therefore are allowed to protect their funding sources.
This, of course, is one of the Big Lies in American politics. Of course the primary purpose of Crossroads GPS—which is run by former high-level Republican Party officials—is to influence elections. In recent months, there’s been increasing pressure on the IRS to call the bluff: Congressional Democrats wrote a letter to the agency asking it to reconsider the tax status of Crossroads GPS and other groups, and nine Republican senators quickly responded with an ominous letter to the IRS warning it not to act.
But Crossroads GPS’s decision to pull television advertising in Missouri in the wake of Republican Senate candidate Representative Todd Akin’s abhorrent comments about rape and pregnancy are (another) bold admission of why the group really exists.
Crossroads GPS is a major player in the Missouri Senate race—it has spent $5.4 million already, which more than doubles the $2.2 million spent by Akin’s actual campaign. The ads “seek to paint [Democratic candidate Claire] McCaskill as a big government-loving, tax-increasing liberal” and hit her for voting to increase the debt limit, among other things.
Under the law, Crossroads GPS and other 501(c)(4) can’t expressly advocate for or against the election of a specific candidate—it can intervene in political races “as long as its primary purpose is the promotion of social welfare” (and then no more than 50 percent of its total activities should be such interventions). Ostensibly these ads are educational—telling voters about issues at stake in a race, but not backing a particular candidate.
But after Akin made his horrific comments about “legitimate rape,” Crossroads GPS announced it was pulling all advertising. “The act speaks for itself,” Crossroads spokesman Nate Hodson said.
This obviously vitiates any argument that the ads are simply to promote social welfare—that, say, the most recent spot is simply meant to educate voters about the national debt. What has changed about McCaskill’s vote on the debt limit? Nothing. What has changed is that suddenly the Republican candidate in that race is viewed as unelectable by basically the entire political establishment—and now Crossroads doesn’t want to spend any more money there. That act speaks for itself, indeed.
By: George Zornick, The Nation, August 21, 2012