Thursday, May 16, 2013

The significance of the Obama-era scandals

Republicans may be overjoyed--they have a triad of scandals to hold against the Obama administration. There's new information on Benghazi including the edit trail of the administration talking points and testimony of personnel who dissent with administration handling of the Benghazi attacks. The IRS targeted Tea Party groups for onerous oversight, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) subpoenaed and seized phone records of many journalists of the AP.

Benghazi is the oldest of the scandals, dating from September 2012. The death of four Americans at a satellite diplomatic facility in Libya hasn't been the story that the GOP had hoped for. It's difficult to turn a single incident like Benghazi into a wide-ranging indictment of the administration's capability of running competent foreign relations. The Obama administration has generally been competent, with fewer Americans soldiers dying, fewer wars started in various hot spots, and not considerably more nuclear tests by North Korea. It's hard to make the case that Obama is so incompetent that we need the more war-like Republicans in office. The narrative that some conservatives wanted to push, that Obama is a welcome mat for Islamist groups, was undercut by other groups in Libya attacking the group responsible for the attack. Also there's Obama's generally aggressive posture in Pakistan and Yemen that belie the GOP position.

So how bad is Benghazi? Hillary is looking less like the firm hand at the State Department handling a myriad of international situation without any of them spinning out of control. She ignored the warnings of dangerous conditions in Benghazi, and she has no good way to apologize for it. This is a black mark against her that she can't clean up. So far her efforts have been defensive and screechy--she may need to learn how to be humble and contrite. She has to hope that her strong points are enough to compensate. That said, she has a couple years to figure out how to explain and mitigate.

The damage to Obama is his lack of engagement. His underlings are mealy-mouthed, his own role in decision-making is muddy. He doesn't know how to end the drip, drip, drip of discrediting information and doubts about the handling of the situation. The CIA is trying to make sure State gets the blame for lack of preparation, but the responsibility for the non-timely military response to the emergency is still a liability that hasn't been fully explored. But this incident, as a small tragedy, isn't large enough to sink Obama's presidency.

The IRS scandal is also less than initial reporting would have it. The IRS probably wasn't directed by the White House, so this is more a rogue operation, rather like Fast + Furious. Also, I doubt that it will seem as egregious as trying to deny tax-exempt status to a church. These groups were political, and the three salient issues were:
  • How much they would have to report, such as listing their donors.
  • How much paperwork and red tape the IRS piled on them.
  • Whether the IRS leaked confidential information to the press or other groups.
No political group, left, right or center, is going to arouse that much sympathy or indignation, so hearings will be either boring or falsely histrionic. That won't do much damage to Obama.

The Obama administration can and should be tough on the personnel responsible for the decisions to pursue these procedures. Perhaps this will mark a new higher standard for the IRS that future administrations will have to follow.

Subpoenas of Journalists' Records
Finally, there is the seizing of the telephone records from the AP. This concerns a leak about a foiled bombing. The leak included some surprisingly detailed information, such as the existence of a double agent who came from the UK and infiltrated a terrorist group in Yemen. If CIA methods for infiltrating this al Qaeda group were compromised, that is a serious leak that deserves scrutiny and perhaps prosecution.

On the other hand, Obama administration may just be trying to intimidate news organizations. Considering that the target was the evil mainstream media, the GOP are not going to be able to spin it as much as they would want to. (Let me crank up my crocodile tears over the missed opportunity.) Obama's handling of leaks and whistleblowers may be tougher than some previous administrations, but it hasn't been severe or common enough to worry the garden-variety, non-libertarian voter. There are good arguments on both sides, which makes it hard to paint Obama as the villain. So, no legs on this scandal either.

Thin Sauce
Sometime last year, perhaps when I was researching Fast + Furious, I realized that the Obama administration has been surprisingly clean, though certainly not squeaky clean. There were some known back door deals in ACA, and it would be hard to believe that there weren't any goodies in the stimulus bill. However, the worst malfeasance was ill-considered large loans to Solyndra and other pet causes. (Or maybe it was some of the big policies, like Obamacare, that don't lend themselves to sound-bit scandal hearings.)

That leaves the GOP-controlled House without enough to investigate, so they are inflating whatever they can find. But that isn't much. There isn't a revolving door between lobbying firms/oil companies and the White House staff. The administration either isn't throwing favors at its Wall Street friends, or the favors pale compared to other times.

The lean pickings, and the insistence of the out-party on investigating something brought us the endless delving into Fast + Furious last year, and will bring us endless Benghazi this year with some droning IRS hearings mixed in. Perhaps some Republicans will weary of the attempt to weave these tiny scraps into a funeral shroud for the Obama administration, and this will end, but I doubt it. The House will have to fill its time somehow, and they certainly won't be spending the time hammering out courageous compromises on pressing issues like entitlement reform or tax reform. No, we can expect some very dull partisan soap operas. Sigh.

The Short Version
Some lessons from these scandals:
  • Bringing the in-party down a few notches doesn't translate into more support for the out-party. The Dems look slightly worse, but ...
  • The GOP still look like a bunch of opportunistic scoundrels who are interested primarily in power rather than sound policy.