The Strange Creation of the Obama Scandals

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Why are you still here? Photo: Alex Wong/2013 Getty Images

The sudden barometric change in Washington has arrived so rapidly that it is hard to comprehend. “The town is turning on President Obama,” announced Politico honchos and custodians of the conventional wisdom Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, and they’re right. Republicans are gleefully unleashing a vast investigative apparatus; erstwhile supporters like Jon Stewart are mortified. The black clouds may dissipate within a few days or weeks, or they may hover over the White House for the rest of Obama’s term. In the meantime, it is dizzying enough that, even in such a short period of time, we ought to step back and ask, what the hell just happened here?

Scandal is a powerful, yet weirdly amorphous term of art in politics. Conceptually, the division between a scandal and a mere controversy or flub or policy dispute is hard to define. It required a peculiar sequencing of events to transform what would on their own have been normal political controversies into the nebulous, all-encompassing Obama Scandals.

The episode began at dawn last Friday, when ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl broke explosive news about Benghazi. Until that point, the Benghazi story had been confined almost entirely to the right-wing fever swamps, where it lingered as a symbol of Obama’s desire to appease radical Islamists. Karl changed that by reporting that he had obtained the administration’s e-mails, and they showed, in contrast to its claims, a one-sided intervention on behalf of the State Department. Karl’s report produced among mainstream and liberal reporters a sense of embarrassment at having dismissed the story as a weird partisan obsession. “For a long time, it seemed like the idea of a coverup was just a Republican obsession,” wrote Alex Koppelman in a scathing and widely circulated online commentary for The New Yorker, “But now there is something to it.”

On Tuesday, Karl’s Benghazi report began to crumble. Jake Tapper reported that, despite claiming to have “reviewed” the e-mails, Karl had not seen them, but had only seen accounts through third parties, who were almost certainly Republican staffers. (Karl is a good reporter, though sometimes prone to overly credulous coverage of Republicans.) And the accounts of those e-mails misrepresented them, characterizing “extensive input from the State Department” when in fact all the agencies had colluded in a familiar, numbing bureaucratic exercise of finding the lowest common denominator of unobjectionable mush. Factually, Benghazi was back to where it had been before Karl mainstreamed it. As a psychological prod, though, its power was undiminished.

The Benghazi report was still fresh when a second bombshell exploded Friday, in the form of the revelation that the Internal Revenue Service had undertaken a one-sided, partisan campaign to scrutinize the tax- exempt status of right-wing activist groups, without applying any similar scrutiny to organizations on the left. Here was a universally acknowledged outrage, and its connection with one of the many crimes of Richard Nixon, however faint, tied the administration in some undefinable way to Watergate, the touchstone for modern scandal culture.

Yet the initial reports suggested, and subsequent reporting confirmed, that the abuses originated from within the department — indeed, at low levels within the department, and were stopped by superiors. Obama cannot do anything to bolster the agency’s internal response. There is no commissioner to fire — the commissioner during the abuse, a Bush holdover, left last fall, and the acting commissioner is a civil servant who can be terminated only for cause. Obama can’t contact the agency, because the post-Watergate law designed to prevent the Nixon-era abuses to which Obama is being compared prevents it.

A natural way to think about the IRS scandal is as an agency scandal. That’s how journalists processed sickening abuses by the General Services Agency, the Interior Department, and others. But the Benghazi report, not yet debunked, had paved the way for the agency to enter the political debate as an Obama scandal. Jon Stewart last year addressed his mockery of GSA profligacy at the GSA, while directing his ire at the IRS scandal Monday night at the president himself.

The combination of the Benghazi and IRS stories formed the predicate for the revelation Monday that the Justice Department had conducted a massive sweep of phone records used by the Associated Press. The phone records story was the moment the switch flipped, when a bad news cycle transformed into a Presidency in Crisis. And the phone records story is indeed chilling.

But here is where the mental alchemy of scandal did its most amazing work. The AP story is a more audacious step in a long government campaign, spanning two administrations, to ruthlessly prosecute leaks about the fight against Jihadi terrorism. In every single step of this fight before this one, Republicans occupied the far-right flank. They voted down shield laws; they demanded more vigorous prosecution of leakers than Obama was carrying out.

If the phone records story had emerged even a few days earlier, the same dynamic would have probably held, with Republicans following the Benghazi theme of exposing Obama as a terror-coddler. Instead the Republicans instantly reversed themselves, denouncing Obama from the left, uttering previously unrecognizable defenses of the dread liberal media such as, from John Boehner’s spokesman, “The First Amendment is first for a reason. If the Obama Administration is going after reporters’ phone records, they better have a damned good explanation.”

Before Monday, government abuses of civil liberties had registered as policy disputes. And, because the complaints usually emanated not from powerful centrists or leaders of the opposition party but politically marginal liberal and left-wing critics, they often barely registered on the political debate at all. (Speaking personally, I plead semi-guilty. I’ve paid little attention to civil liberties, because there are only so many complex policy questions I’m capable of mastering, but I have applied this benign neglect in a scrupulously nonpartisan fashion to Democratic and Republican presidents alike.)

The head-spinning sequence of events from Friday to Monday suddenly elevated the phone records story from a one-day story that would produce denunciations in liberal blogs and taunting from the libertarian right into something categorically different. It was the capstone of the Obama Scandals.

Update: I initially, erroneously described the Justice Department as having "wiretapped" the Associated Press. In fact it collected phone records but did not record the calls. Apologies for the hasty mistake.