It says something about the kind of fortnight the president has been having that the controversies facing his administration can be divided into tiers.
The Benghazi debacle and the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups are, as it were, “tier one” scandals: the former because it involves obfuscation and cynical political calculation in the matter of the murder of four Americans by jihadists, the latter because it comprises systematic governmental discrimination against conservatives for exercising the core right to political speech.
The Justice Department’s seizure of phone records from the Associated Press, by contrast, is at least for now a second-tier concern. The confiscation is sure to chill the AP’s relationship with its sources, and normalizing such a practice would certainly chill the exercise of a free press. And there are questions to ask about the wisdom of the Justice Department’s specific actions, and about Attorney General Eric Holder’s odd recusal from the proceedings — a decision about which he admits making no formal record, and that he says prevents him from testifying to specifics. But so far what we have here are possible excesses in the course of a legitimate investigation. The department was looking into a leak that compromised a U.S. asset in Yemen, an asset who had disrupted a terrorist bomb plot. Such leaks are illegal. They make America less safe. And the Justice Department is right to look into them.
But in all three cases — the first two emphatically, the third provisionally — there is a “there” there, whatever the administration, and its exhaustively circumlocuting spokesman Jay Carney, are claiming to the contrary. Congress should investigate. And though the AP story has angered some progressives, and the IRS story some vulnerable Democrats, it will fall on the Republicans to lead the way.
We urge them to do so with vigor, but also with a keen sense of the limits of political scandal. Republicans must guard against the temptation to count on scandal to deliver election victories in 2014 and 2016.
It is a lesson they should have learned in 1998. Republicans expected to make large gains in Congress that year but ended up losing five House seats and standing pat in the Senate. The problem was not so much that Republicans “overreached” in pursuing the impeachment of President Clinton, as the conventional wisdom has it. The Republicans that year did not really run on a promise to remove Clinton from office — or on any other agenda. Their strategy was to assume that the scandal would redound to their benefit, and that they merely had to sit back and let victory rain o’er them. It didn’t.
The current lot should not make the same mistake. Democratic scandal does not take the place of a Republican agenda. It does not reform the tax code or reduce the debt or ease regulatory burdens on small business. It cannot substitute for a strategy to replace Obamacare. By all means, Republicans should run against the president and his party — against their refusal to take the entitlement crisis seriously, against the implementation of their “train wreck” health-care law, and even against the unusually politicized executive-branch culture that contributed to the post-Benghazi cover-up. They should at the same time understand that a purely negative message, however justified, will not produce the governing majority Republicans should be aiming for in the next two elections.
Even worse than relying on scandal would be advertising the fact. Republicans should not indulge in public speculation about the electoral repercussions of these scandals for 2014 (much less 2016!). Doing so plays into the Democrats’ hands by making legitimate inquiries seem like opportunistic partisan exercises, and is thus likely to be a self-canceling prophecy.
Republicans should not jump to conclusions, either, about how high up the White House chain of command these scandals are likely to creep. The facts alone will determine that. And perhaps most of all, conservatives and Republicans should not talk loosely about impeachment. The overwhelming likelihood at this point is that Barack Obama will leave office on January 20, 2017. The main task ahead for Republicans is to build a post-Obama majority so that his governing philosophy departs too.