As the investigative phase of the Obama presidency commences in earnest, Republicans are promising that their overriding goal is to proceed cautiously and let the facts speak for themselves. “We have stuff here that’s real, so you don’t need the distraction of politics to give people an excuse to say we’re being silly,” a House Republican leadership aide involved in the investigations tells Politico. “Everyone is keenly aware of the overreach risk.” Likewise, Charles Boustany Jr., who is helping lead the IRS investigation on the House Ways and Means Committee, tells the New York Times, “I’m being very cautious not to overplay my hand.”
Part of this is advertising — if Republicans want the media to take them seriously, and not as crazed partisan witch-hunters, they have to assure the media they are serious and not crazed partisan witch-hunters. But there also seems to be an element of genuine calculation here. Republicans do recall the 1998 midterm election blowback they suffered for impeachment mania. They think a slow, patient investigative process will produce fruitful results.
I happen to think they’re wrong about this. While I don’t have much sympathy for their goals, as a pure strategic calculation — and my analysis here is completely value-free — I think caution is the wrong play for the Republicans here. They should probably let their freak flag fly.
The explicit assumption of the slow-careful strategy, which is also the implicit assumption of the stories reporting on it, is that more digging will produce harmful news about the Obama administration. “This is just the beginning. I want to emphasize that. We have a lot of work left to do in getting to the root of this,” Boustany tells the Times.
That might be true. But what if it’s not? What if we’ve already gotten to the root of it?
Indeed, what we’ve seen so far is that the stories looked most damaging when they were first reported, and subsequent revelations have made them look less, not more, scandalous. The idea that there is a series of “Obama scandals” took its root last week when ABC reporter Jonathan Karl misleadingly claimed to have seen incriminating White House e-mails, which turned out to have been doctored by House Republicans. An independent report of the IRS found no political direction at all led to the agency’s use of a one-sided search program to flag partisan tax-free groups.
Once journalists start to think of an issue as a “scandal,” then they assume it will necessarily lead to progressively stronger evidence of wrongdoing. That assumption isn’t necessarily true. And the sequence of events that made everybody start to think of a few disconnected stories as “Obama scandals” was mainly an odd and somewhat shaky confluence of events.
If Republicans do manage to unearth some significant misdeeds, then playing it cool and rational will help them build the case to force resignations, impeach the president, or wherever they want to take this. The more likely scenario is that they won’t find anything groundbreaking. And then they have to ask themselves how they want to continue to keep the scandal narrative going.
Endless hearings that produce little news won’t do. A constant drumbeat of impeachment talk, and browbeating reporters for failing to promote it, is more likely to succeed. The accusations from Republicans are what make the story newsworthy. And they reestablish the boundaries of opinion, so that impeaching Obama becomes defined as the irresponsible right-wing position, but “there’s nothing here” becomes the irresponsible left-wing position. The respectable centrist thing to say is that there’s definitely something fishy in the administration, even though impeachment seems premature.
You may think that screaming bloody murder over a non-scandal will utterly backfire. I invite you study volumes I to V of the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s collection of wild denunciations of massive, unprecedented criminality in the “Whitewater scandal.” The scandal, in fact, amounted to nothing in the end. But it did successfully implant an aura of sleaze and wrongdoing. If you’re looking to foment a scandal, having the facts on your side is obviously helpful, but it’s not necessary. (Republicans should probably stay away from actual impeachment — that part of the lesson of 1998 seems clear enough.)
I think Republicans made a huge strategic miscalculation on how to fight Obama in the first term. They assumed his policy agenda, and the economic devastation they figured it would bring, would be so unpopular they could oppose him on policy grounds alone. They made little effort to undermine Obama as a political figure. That reservoir of trust has helped Obama enjoy strong personal favorability ratings. If they’re smart, they’ll get to work on creating a narrative of wrongdoing and sleaze. If they wait for the facts to make the case for them, they may blow their chance altogether.