Commentary Magazine


Obama, Not GOP, Should Be Scandal Focus

Throughout a long week of scandal, the growing evidence of wrongdoing in the executive branch has buffeted Democrats. Like President Obama, who was slow to realize the danger to his presidency, his supporters were initially put back on their heels by the triple threat posed by the Benghazi investigation, the Justice Department’s seizure of the Associated Press’s phone records and, most damning of all, the Internal Revenue Service’s discriminatory practices. But also like the president, who took to the road today to resume his attempt to blame the interest in these issues on his opponents’ narrow partisanship, liberals are starting to speak out to minimize the importance of the scandals.

The left is working hard to classify Benghazi as a “political circus”; blame the AP for being subjected to an unprecedented phone records grab; or to say the real problem in the IRS affair is that right-wing groups attempt to gain nonprofit status. But while they are having mixed success with those efforts, they are gaining some traction with the notion that the real problem today is not the administration’s incompetence or malfeasance but overreaching on the part of Republicans.

Indeed, Republicans are already second-guessing themselves about how hard to hit the president on the scandals, with liberals using those doubts to help craft a narrative in which the real threat to the republic is an extremist GOP. There are good reasons to fear that Republican hotheads will distract the public from Obama’s troubles but it should be understood that this storyline is essentially bogus. However the president’s opposition plays their hand, any attempt to shift the focus from the administration and the president to those who are attempting to make him accountable for the government’s behavior is a yet another attempt to deceive the public.

The main Democratic talking point this week has been an extension of the same keynote they’ve been sounding for the last three years with mixed success: Republicans are extremists and bent only on obstructing a popular president. The three scandals all point toward a general validation of Republican complaints about Obama’s obsessive belief in big government. But this was discounted by those who wrongly label Tea Partiers as foes of democracy rather than exemplars of how grassroots politics is so supposed to work.

To be fair, the Democratic task of shifting blame to the accusers is easier when Republicans get ahead of the investigations. For Senator Jim Inhofe or Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann to be talking about impeachment is a bad sign for Republicans. In fact, any time Bachmann moves back to center stage from the relative obscurity her poor showing as a presidential candidate had consigned her to is a not a favorable indicator for the GOP.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was right to admit today on NPR that he and other Republican leaders did go too far in 1998 when they impeached Bill Clinton, a move that transformed a president who had disgraced his office into a victim of the GOP. That Gingrich and fellow Republican House leader Bob Livingston were also later proved to be hypocrites when it came to sexual hijinks makes that misjudgment even worse. Gingrich’s advice to his successors to step back and let the administration’s bungling and lies speak for themselves is the sort of sage counsel he could have used when he was speaker.

But while it is fair to point out that Republicans need to be calm and factual as they begin the work of unraveling the administration’s misdeeds and mistakes, it is another thing entirely to frame the current situation as one in which the GOP is in jeopardy, as a feature in Politico did today.

Comparisons with past scandals, whether more serious or less, are almost by definition inexact. But no matter what you think about whether any of Obama’s troubles rank up there with those of his predecessors, the posture of Republicans at the hearings of investigative committees exploring these issues is no different from the Democratic interrogators of GOP figures during Watergate or Iran Contra. If some are grandstanding, that goes with the territory and Democrats who didn’t object to such antics when it was their opponents in the hot seat are in no position to complain when their people are put on the spot.

The only reason the media is treating the behavior of the Republicans as a big story in a week that has been dominated by Obama’s problems is the willingness of many in the media to buy into the Democratic belief that the GOP is a collection of crackpots. That’s essentially been the president’s main argument all along as he posed as the adult in the room in Washington even as he did his best to exacerbate the divisions in the capital and fell asleep at the wheel as his government went off course on a variety of issues.

But no matter how much you don’t like the Republicans, it’s impossible for a fair observer to read the Benghazi emails or White House spokesman Jay Carney’s lies about them and say the problem is GOP outrage about the deceptions. Nor could anyone listen to the arrogance and deceptions on display in outgoing IRS director Steven Miller’s performance today without understanding that his Republican tormentors were merely venting the feelings of most Americans about this rather than showing their extremism.

The GOP needs to be careful not to interfere with Obama’s fumbling and give the media an excuse to revert to their familiar pattern of demonizing the right. But right now the spotlight is on the president and the big government he believes in, not those who are rightly worried about expanding the power of this inefficient and often corrupt leviathan. Changing the subject from that all-too-real drama is an exercise in misdirection that responsible journalists should avoid.

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