When scandals metastasize, the stakes are high indeed.

The president discusses Benghazi in the Rose Garden as his secretary of state looks on, September 12, 2012.


John O’Sullivan

As the final presidential debate looms into view, there is — or at least I sense there is — a mood of deep trepidation on all sides. That is understandable, of course, because the race is so tight that both candidates have a world to win or to lose this evening. Moreover, the two Libya debacles — the first by President Obama in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, the second by Governor Romney in the second debate — have raised the stakes even further.

Charles Krauthammer’s column last Friday was characteristically precise about how Libya had become so crucial: When President Obama said he was offended by Governor Romney’s suggestion that he had misled Americans over the terrorist murders of four Americans, including Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, he thereby gave a dangerous hostage to fortune.

For the evidence, mounting daily, is that the president did so mislead the nation. Here is the case in Charles’s words:

His U.N. ambassador went on not one but five morning shows to spin a confection that the sacking of the consulate and the murder of four Americans came from a video-motivated demonstration turned ugly: “People gathered outside the embassy and then it grew very violent and those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons.”

But there was no gathering. There were no people. There was no fray. It was totally quiet outside the facility until terrorists stormed the compound and killed our ambassador and three others. 

In addition, the president himself advanced the argument that “the video did it” in his speech to the United Nations. So, as Charles concluded, he is extremely vulnerable to a counterattack tonight from Governor Romney, who will have 90 minutes and much on-the-record evidence when he presents his case. That, however, raises the pressure on the governor not to screw it up a second time.

Tonight, therefore, is the Muhammad Ali–Joe Frazier contest of presidential politics.

In one important respect, however, Charles understated his argument. Though he observed that Obama had sent out other administration spokesmen to present the administration’s false account, he argued the quite limited case that it was the president who was facing the music.

That may be true tonight and on Election Day. If, however, Romney persuades the world that the Obama administration has given a “misleading” account of the Benghazi murders to American television viewers, to the media, to the United Nations, and to the world at large, he will indict a great many people in addition to the president.

Simply list the people who have gone out in public to repeat the video argument — and related arguments such as the claim (maintained for eight days after the president used the phrase “acts of terror” in the Rose Garden) that it couldn’t yet be said for certain that the Benghazi attack was a terrorist action

If this was indeed a deception, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ambassador Susan Rice, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, White House aide David Axelrod, and press spokesman Jay Carney are only six of the people who apparently cooperated in it — though Mr. Carney is probably safe, since no one believes that the press guy is told what really happened unless that also happens to be the cover story.

Think what this means for American politics. Obama, Axelrod, and Rice are the top level of the Obama establishment in the Democratic party; Hillary Clinton is the titular head of its Clintonian counterestablishment. All have appeared in public to defend the argument that the Benghazi murders began as a response to an anti-Islam video on YouTube.

Hillary Clinton is also the leading potential Democratic candidate for 2016 (despite her denials). The other leading figure is Joe Biden. Both are implicated in spreading an account that nobody now believes or even defends.

Think next about the ripple effect when figures of this weight fall under a cloud — if they suddenly have to start hiring lawyers, answering subpoenas, trying to recall when and where they were told what, and eventually resigning and going into private life. The longer Libyagate lasts, the more likely it is to damage the Democrats. It would mean more than merely a lost election (though it might well mean that too). It would mean a wholesale revolution at the top of the Democratic party.

Without Watergate, neither Gerry Ford nor Ronald Reagan would have got near the presidency. Nixon’s successor would have been someone like George H. W. Bush or John Connally. Nixon rather than Reagan would then have shaped the modern Republican party, rather as FDR shaped the pre-Vietnam Democrats. The entire spectrum of American politics would have been different (and conservatives must surely think much worse). 

That’s good news for ambitious young governors and senators like Andrew Cuomo and Ron Wyden. It’s bad news for all the current leading Democrats, who will be feeling the chill of scandal this week, planning to protect their interests against it and estimating the degree of threat it poses.

Well, how big a threat does it pose?

Recall that the cover story concealed not a burglary, as in Watergate, but the security failures that led up to the murder of an American ambassador and three of his colleagues, the fact that it was an organized terrorist attack that killed him, and the deteriorating political and security situation in Libya, which the Obama campaign was touting as a symbol of the president’s successful foreign policy. So it’s a big deal.

As is often the case with scandals, moreover, almost every aspect of this one is metastasizing. The cover story about the video is collapsing under the weight of on-the-record statements by intelligence officials about what really happened. The security failures leading up to the ambassador’s murder, which until now have been the backdrop to the story, have suddenly emerged front and center because a cache of his appeals for more security assistance has been published. These on-the record revelations explain why the establishment media have to cover the story seriously; it is now a test not of the press’s investigative powers but of its ability to read and write. (That plus Fox News, which the establishment media hate but which accordingly they can’t allow to have the monopoly on a good story.)

And as the revelations tumble forth, all the players at all levels of the administration have to recall the old Washington axiom: If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu. The White House political operation and the intelligence community look likely to be the places where senior officials will search for scapegoats. But anyone who ever wrote an e-mail on some aspect of Libyagate has to check if he’s vulnerable in some way. Or whether — if he’s lucky — his words can be presented favorably as a warning to his seniors against deception. He wrote it to be ambiguous. How does it read now? Not clear at all. Excellent! Time therefore to contact a friendly journalist with a good story . . . before the other fellow does. 

At some point in the process, the dribble of revelations becomes a flood and leads quite suddenly to massive media investigations, congressional hearings, legal indictments, and all the paraphernalia of scandal, coverup, and investigation.

The dam holding this flood in check, seemingly forever until it suddenly collapses, is the belief of those at risk that the president or the administration will protect them in return for their silence. Nixon’s landslide reelection in 1972 gave the Watergate people this assurance until it became clear that Nixon was either unable or unwilling to save them from prison — and the dam burst.

It is very likely that some people in the current administration are at present similarly calculating that Obama’s reelection will save them because of their previous loyal cooperation. With only two weeks to go, that is a rational calculation. If Romney continues to surge ahead and the scandal to metastasize, however, the calculation could well change. An October surprise might then emerge to help Romney.

Cooler heads within the Democratic establishment may, however, be making quite a different calculation. If Romney were to win, then Libyagate would probably have a short, undignified life. All the guilty (however defined) would be gone from office; the electorate would have pronounced judgment; the steam would go out of the scandal. A final congressional report, reprimanding senior officials and praising junior whistleblowers, would be the third item on the evening news. Obama would leave politics to become a cultural icon. The reputations of other major Democrats would be lightly grazed — and their future careers preserved.

On the other hand, if Obama ekes out a narrow victory against this background — well, after a brief celebratory interval, our long national nightmare might be only beginning.  

John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.