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Obama Scandal Fever: Republican Fool's Gold

The spring and summer of 2013 has not been kind to the Obama administration. A trio of government missteps and controversies have shifted the political media's focus from Republicans' divisions (on gun safety, immigration reform, and outreach to non-White voters) to Republican-led investigations of alleged political wrongdoing and negligence on behalf of Obama administration officials. The three investigations concern last September's terrorist attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya; the monitoring of the Associated Press's and other reporters' communications; and the Internal Revenue Service's heightened scrutiny of conservative-leaning nonprofit organizations for tax purposes.

These three problems have given congressional Republicans fresh ammunition they can use to attack President Obama and his leadership. The Benghazi attack allows Republicans to argue that Obama is not keeping Americans safe. The AP affair lets Republicans criticize the Obama administration for undermining the freedom of the press. And the IRS scandal has led to Republican insinuations that Obama is using the government to go after his political enemies. These fresh lines of attack undoubtedly play well with the Republican base, but they are a fool's errand when it comes to the broader electorate. This is not to say that these investigations should not take place, but rather that Republicans would be wise to shift the focus of the investigations and their rhetoric from Obama's culpability in these matters to why a smaller government is better able to protect the rights of the people. However, recent and near-recent Republican fixations (i.e., Obama's birth certificate, Obama's not wearing a flag pin, Obama's bowing to foreign leaders) do not inspire much confidence that Republicans won't engage in another round of nonsense peddling.

First of all, Obama remains personally popular. His personal favorability ratings exceed his job approval ratings, which means that a large segment of voters like Obama even if they do not support his political views. Thus, he has a reservoir of goodwill that would lead voters to give him the benefit of the doubt whenever bad news erupts. It is not credible to accuse Obama of being able to prevent the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens. Obama is too likable for voters to believe he explicitly ordered his deputies to pressure the IRS into targeting conservative advocacy groups. Thus, hyperpartisan Republican rhetoric seems more likely to discredit Republicans than it does to sully Obama's reputation.

Regarding the AP surveillance, this is a legitimate issue that forces reporters and government leaders alike to reconcile the tension between national security and an open press which can interview government sources without fear of retaliation. However, there are several problems for Republicans here. First of all, most Americans do not have a particularly high opinion of the national press. So if one disliked entity (the federal government) has a problem with another disliked entity (the national press), it would seem foolish to expect outrage among voters and a surge in support for media organizations. Secondly, Republicans have made "the media" one of their favorite targets in many political campaigns. After bashing "the media" for years for being too liberal, too intrusive, too sensationalistic, or too whatever, now Republicans suddenly care about the "lamestream media" being mistreated? A third problem is that a lot of the rhetoric Republicans employed during the George W. Bush administration when the Patriot Act was being debated seem to be antithetical to their rhetoric now. The Patriot Act allowed for wiretapping of phones and the surveillance of e-mail messages. National security trumped privacy concerns. Some Republicans even argued "if you have done nothing wrong, you should have nothing to worry about." This argument excused intrusive governmental practices in the name of national security. What has changed since the Patriot Act, other than the fact that there's a Democratic president using the same national security arguments? A third problem is that average people simply don't care because government-media tensions have nothing to do with voters' everyday lives, such as paychecks, health insurance or education.

The Benghazi investigation seems to be an even more misguided Republican pursuit. At the time of the attack, there were other American embassies and consulates being stormed or threatened in the Middle East and North Africa. The focus of any investigation should be more on improving diplomatic security and less on how the public relations after the attack were bungled. Most Americans do not know where Benghazi is. And while it is a tragedy that an American ambassador and three other Americans were killed, these deaths took place on foreign soil in a volatile part of the world. Nearly 4500 American troops died in Iraq and casualties are still mounting in Afghanistan. Nearly 3000 Americans died on US soil during the September 11 attacks. This disproportionately strong Republican outrage on Libya and comparatively minor outrage on the buildup to Iraq or lax airline security before the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington make Republicans seem like they are more interested in attacking a Democratic president they obviously don't like than they are in investigating and fixing an actual problem. And do Republicans really want to split hairs debating the differences between whether Obama called the attack "a terrorist act" or "an act of terror?"

The IRS controversy is probably the most politically toxic issue for Democrats in general because it allows Republicans to argue that the IRS is yet another example of big government run amok and of big government targeting people it deems an enemy--in other words, conservatives. However, Republicans have failed to exercise restraint in their characterizations of this issue. They have inaccurately claimed this is an "Obama scandal" that is "worse than Watergate" or "Nixonian in nature." The head of the IRS at the time of the improper targeting was a George W. Bush appointee, and the staffers engaged in the targeting were civil service employees, not political appointees. And as more information came out about the IRS, it became more apparent that this was an agency problem, rather than an "Obama" agency problem. The end result is likely that people who never trusted Obama or the IRS to begin with are not going to trust Obama or the IRS in the future. People who supported Obama beforehand probably still do. And people who are persuadable voters probably care too little about politics during the summer in a political offyear because they are probably more concerned with their family vacations, summer camps, and buying back-to-school supplies for their kids.

There's one other reason why none of these "problems" haven't gained much traction politically. Republicans have been banging the drums of hyperbole, scandal, and radicalism so much that their own credibility is suspect. Everything Obama does is an "assault on freedom" or "the largest intrusion of government ever" or "the biggest tax hike in history." The radical Kenyan socialist Muslim is destroying America and must be stopped at all costs. Perhaps voters have become numb to this rhetoric because Republicans cried "wolf" too many times. This is not to say that Obama would not benefit from responsible oversight. But when a political party loses its credibility because of the rhetoric of its most strident members, it makes it a little harder for this party to be seen as legitimate in its dealings with a president everyone knows they very much dislike.

2 comment(s):

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

Wow, Its just tells me you Lib's have such a disdain for the American people. I know you guy's are so much smarter than the rest of us, and with out you we would all just evaporate away. But think about it, if us conservatives are not able to survive with out your help, the world would be your oyster.

Copyright 2007-2012 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. Palmer Politics is syndicated by Newstex.