A year ago, as the news of the IRS scandal was breaking and the fallout from Benghazi was also becoming better known, Democrats were on the defensive about possible misconduct by the administration. A year later, their panic has subsided. By steadfastly denigrating the very idea that these scandals are, in fact, scandals, the administration, its political allies, and its cheerleaders in the media have begun to see issues like Benghazi as a battle cry for their base as much as it is for the Republicans. Far from worrying about the impact of investigations into the effort to target conservative groups by the IRS or what happened in Benghazi and its aftermath, liberals are cheered by the decision by the House GOP caucus to embrace these issues.
The conceit of the Democrats’ approach is one that is shared by many fearful conservatives. They think that what is being depicted as an obsessive pursuit of either minor wrongdoing or non-scandals will turn the Republican Party into a laughingstock in much the same manner that the government shutdown did. Since they take it as a given that there is no substance to the accusations of a cover up about government actions either before or after Benghazi or that the IRS controversy involved anything but overzealous bureaucrats, they believe the deeper the GOP dives into these investigations the more Democrats will benefit.
There is some substance to these concerns, since many in the GOP caucus have shown themselves to be incapable of conducting sober investigations or being able to avoid succumbing to grandstanding when they’d be better off at least trying to pretend to be on a bipartisan search for the truth. But, as we noted here last week, the reason these issues are still alive is that there are some serious questions still left answered about administration conduct and the lies that were told after Benghazi. The same goes for the IRS investigation. Though the creation of a select committee on Benghazi is a trip for Republicans, Democrats need to be wary of both underestimating its chair Rep. Trey Gowdy, a veteran prosecutor, and also of getting stuck in the position of defending what may turn out to be the indefensible.
If all this exasperates Democrats, it’s understandable since they thought that they had already finished weathering the storm of Obama’s scandal-plagued 2013.
After ducking for cover in the wake of the revelations about the IRS’s targeting of conservative and Tea Party groups, the confusing inconclusive narrative that House investigators were able elicit from witnesses diluted public outrage. And when Lois Lerner, the key figure in the scandal, invoked her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination—but only after making a statement declaring her innocence and seemingly waving those rights—that led to a partisan squabble in the House Oversight Committee chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa that allowed Democrats to portray the whole thing as a witch hunt led by an intemperate partisan. That most Democrats voted not to charge Lerner with contempt for refusing to testify shows that they believe not only that there is no scandal but that Republicans will pay a price for pursuing it.
As for Benghazi, the sheer volume of congressional investigations about Benghazi that performed little in the way of actual probing similarly fed the impression that the country was ready to move on rather than searching for more answers.
But the discovery of a smoking gun email from Deputy National Security Director Ben Rhodes that seemed to speak of doctoring the talking points about Benghazi in order to downplay talk of terrorism and reinforce the false narrative about the attack being a case of film criticism run amok has reignited the controversy. House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to finally seat a select committee to investigate the matter may have come a year too late since the chaotic and largely incompetent hearings on the issue have done much to give former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other administration underlings cover. Democrats are divided as to what to do about the Benghazi committee because they are unsure whether taking part in the hearings will lend credence to the GOP probe or if staying away will make it easier for Gowdy to lead the probe toward dangerous territory for the administration.
But rather than solely focus on how much rope to give Republicans to hang themselves, Democrats shouldn’t blithely assume that Gowdy will not uncover more embarrassing revelations about the various aspects of the tragedy, including the failure to heed warnings about terrorism as well as the misleading talking points. Just as Republicans need to worry about playing their roles as dogged pursuers of the truth rather than a political attack squad, so, too, Democrats need to be careful not to overplay their hand.
Democrats acted this week as if they think they have nothing to lose in defending Lerner against contempt charges or stopping the GOP from forcing her to divulge whether anyone higher up in the government food chain had a role in the targeting of conservatives. By the same token, they seem to think that obstructing or mocking the Benghazi investigation will only help them in the midterms as well as protect Clinton’s 2016 presidential prospects.
Yet if Republicans conduct a serious investigation of Benghazi—as Gowdy intends to do—Democrats would be wise to join the South Carolinian in pursuit of the truth. If the probe comes up with nothing embarrassing for the administration and Clinton, they will have lost nothing. But if the select committee—which will have subpoena power and legal counsels conducting a thorough legal process—does learn that the Rhodes email was just the tip of the iceberg, then they, and not the Republicans, will be the big losers if they continue to kibitz on the sidelines.
The ability of the administration and the media to table these stories is finished, and the sooner Democrats realize that the better off they will be.