The cloud of scandal is hard to escape — mainly because they tend to be large and amorphous, like, you know, clouds. The scandal cloud formed, as I argued today, because three events came together in just the right sequence so as to create the impression that we had “three Obama scandals” when, in reality, we have somewhere between zero and one.
The Benghazi scandal was considered a non-scandal, and would still be considered one, if not for some erroneous reporting by Jonathan Karl that set off the entire cycle. The only thing that happened here is a bunch of agencies that were confused about events tried to agree among themselves. Jake Tapper, who broke the story that refuted the erroneous report, notes:
There were internal disagreements within the CIA about a number of issues, including whether the attack was a pre-planned act of terror or the result of spontaneous demonstrations because of similar protests in Cairo over an anti-Muslim video produced in the United States.
The IRS story is likewise looking less and less like a scandal, too. Noam Scheiber smartly points out that the IRS didn’t so much single out conservative groups as conservative groups singled themselves out by applying en masse for tax-exempt status: “So the crime here had nothing to do with ‘targeting’ conservatives. The targeting was effectively done by the conservative groups themselves.” It’s obviously vital for the IRS to develop ideologically neutral criteria to enforce its guidelines for what is a tax-exempt group. But plenty of liberal groups were targeted as well. The IRS may have gotten its response to the tea-party-application wave wrong, but it was not indicative of a general bias against the right, and it was a low-level failure.
As they attract more and more scrutiny, the Benghazi and the IRS stories both look increasingly benign. Reporters like Ben Smith, John Harris, and Alexander Burns have heroically attempted to justify lumping these incidents together as “scandals” with the common theme of dangerous big government overreach. One could no less persuasively lump them into the “narrative” of government employees making good-faith efforts to undertake difficult judgments in the face of implacable partisan opposition exploiting raging paranoia.
The task for Obama is to disentangle the various stories, to break them down into individual, fact-based questions rather than nebulous accusations. The key here is the third story, the Department of Justice’s snooping of phone records of the Associated Press. This is the third, legitimate piece that is currently propping up the other two rapidly deflating elements of the “scandal” troika.
The oddity is that the snooping story, while extremely serious, is probably not a “scandal” as we normally understand it. It’s a policy dispute, like when the Environmental Protection Agency decides to regulate or not regulate carbon dioxide, and policy disputes can be important.
And here the Obama administration has found itself on the wrong political side of an issue whose political calculus has suddenly inverted. For most of the administration, Obama’s main political goal required guarding against the accusation of doing too little to fight terrorism. Moving too far right would earn him only the scorn of a handful of liberals, while moving too far left risked setting off a far more dangerous narrative pressed first by Hillary Clinton, then more vigorously by John McCain, and continued by Republicans through the Benghazi episode — the foreign policy weakling, naïve or even sympathetic to the dangers of Islamic terrorism.
I have no idea to what extent political calculations drove the administration’s policies on civil liberties. I suspect it was quite a bit, but as I noted earlier, the issue is not my specialty. What I do know is that Obama’s strongest political maneuver at the moment would be to shore up his civil libertarian credentials. He did announce support for a shield law today — but, as Sam Stein and Zach Carter point out, the proposed law would not necessarily have prevented the most recent abuse. Going further is not merely a policy imperative but Obama’s best way to path out of a minor political crisis.