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Don't Get Sucked Into Obama Scandal–mania | The Nation

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Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

Don't Get Sucked Into Obama Scandal–mania

President Barack Obama
Barack Obama has been rocked by scandals over Benghazi, the IRS and the DOJ. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.)
 

Benghazi, the IRS targeting Tea Party groups, the Department of Justice secretly seizing AP phone records: It’s a “trifecta” of scandals, Chuck Todd said. A “perfect storm,” Ron Fournier of National Journal wrote. “Obama’s Watergate?” Larry Kudlow’s CNBC show asked. And indeed Republicans, the mainstream media and all too many liberals have been getting emotionally swept up in the belief that no matter the merit of any one of these “scandals” (some more deserving of scare quotes than others), together they prove the Obama administration to be fatally scandal-prone, if not Nixonian, and predict flat-out second-term doom.

But let’s take a deep breath.

If they hadn’t converged within seven or so days in May, these scandals might have died of their own accord, as Fast and Furious did, as Solyndra did. Remember when the BP oil spill was deemed “Obama’s Hurricane Katrina,” even his “Iran Hostage Crisis”? As presidency-destroying scandals go, the IRS and AP crises rest on only slightly less flimsy ground than Benghazi: The IRS flap involves incompetence and short-term thinking by mid-level officials for whom Obama bears only the whiffiest responsibility. The DOJ investigation of a national security leak to the AP is a gross overreach, but it’s exactly the sort of leak-plugging that Republicans excoriated Obama for not doing aggressively enough.

So why is the media huffing in a paper bag in between speculating on his demise? Alone, each of these stories may have fizzled, but together their gaseous fumes ignite to reach escape velocity and overcome the gravity of facts altogether. Or as Stephen Colbert said, cracking out the champagne to celebrate the “chilling” IRS scandal, “This proves that everything I ever said about Obama is true.”

The triumphalism on the right may always be premature, but this time they do have an apology from the IRS to swing like a club, not to mention the sudden prostration of scandal-intoxicated Dems. “I’m sorry, Bob Woodward,” Mika Brzezinski said Tuesday. She was apologizing for once mocking Woodward for suggesting that a White House aide had threatened him for not towing the Obama line on sequestration. Back then, in February, Mika said, “Is he really afraid of a little aide that said that to him? Really? Are you kidding me?” But just twenty-four hours of trifecta hysteria had Mika convinced that “Maybe he was right.” (He wasn’t.)

“This is outrageous,” Democratic consultant and one-time John Edwards adviser Chris Kofinis said of the IRS controversy. “The administration and the president need to condemn this and act immediately. This is not a right-left issue.” (By last night, of course, Obama condemned it, again, and fired the IRS acting director.)

Most bitingly, Joe Klein wrote: “Previous Presidents, including great ones like Roosevelt, have used the IRS against their enemies. But I don’t think Obama ever wanted to be on the same page as Richard Nixon. In this specific case, he now is.”

In fact, so many media liberals were piling on Obama that Morning Joe’s Mike Barnicle declared, “I do not want to hear the phrase ‘liberal bias’ applied to the media when it comes to coverage of the Obama administration after the past couple of days.” (Greg Gutfeld of Fox News obliged, coming up instead with a new phrase: “The media is Obama’s scandal condom.”)

There’s something amusingly Lilliputian about the Republicans using all these slender threads to tie Obama down. But it’s scary, too, like waking up with Mitch McConnell standing on your nose, ranting at you.

So it’s important to separate these threads, and to see how in each case the GOP is framing the stories and encouraging us to jump to conclusions without waiting for buzzkills like facts or context.

Benghazi: Off the Fox/GOP scandal assembly line, this had been pretty much accepted as a “nothingburger.” Every time the right promises a bombshell, it’s defused, like the e-mail leaked to ABC’s Jonathan Karl that was supposed to reveal nefarious editing of Susan Rice’s talking points. Turns out, the leaked e-mail had itself been nefariously edited by Karl’s sources to make it look as if the White House was more focused on the talking points than it was.

And so far, the 100 pages of e-mails the White House released as damage-control yesterday look like a second helping of a nothingburger. That, or a long-form birth certificate.

Of course, there’s always Darryl Issa, though lately he’s been reduced to explaining that Obama covered up the Benghazi attack by calling it an “act of terror.” Obama’s semantics are a dead giveaway, Issa says, because “an ‘act of terror’ is different than a ‘terrorist attack.’ ” Please proceed, congressman.

The IRS: It’s clear now that the Cincinnati office of the IRS targeted conservative groups with words like “Tea Party” and “Patriot” in their names for extra scrutiny before granting them tax-exempt status. While these organizations weren’t rejected, their applications were often delayed by years, and some are still waiting for an answer. Worse, according to reporting in USA Today, the IRS approved liberal groups more quickly.

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So it’s bad, sure, but it apparently has nothing to do with Obama. In fact, liberals are beginning to realize that the right has been tying their hair to little pegs to keep them from moving, and they’re starting to yank free. Joe Klein stepped back from the brink the other day, saying, “I may have swung a bit too hard, putting Barack Obama’s Administration in the same league as Franklin Roosevelt’s and Richard Nixon’s when it comes to the Internal Revenue Service.”

The most important difference is that the Roosevelt and Nixon IRS depredations came from the White House. This mess seems to have percolated from the middle–the IRS’s Cincinnati office (a major facility, by the way)—up to the upper-middle. It was an overreaction, to be sure—but, as Ezra Klein explains, it was a response to a very real problem: how do you draw the line between political advocacy, which is a taxable activity, and policy advocacy, which is not, if the advocate organizes itself as a 501(c)4? Here’s Ezra.

The real scandal at the IRS, as my colleague Ari Berman says, “is how the Citizens United decision has unleashed a flood of secret spending in US elections that the IRS and other regulatory agencies in Washington…have been unwilling or unable to stem.”

In fact, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) had planned to hold hearings this June “to go after” such dark money groups, like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, that have won tax-exempt status and the right to hide their donors by pretending to be 501c4 “social welfare” organizations. But because of the IRS scandal over the smaller-fish Tea Party groups, the investigation has been indefinitely delayed.

Anyway, misuse of the tax code is a bipartisan sin, as Harry Reid said Tuesday. “It wasn’t long ago that the IRS inappropriately targeted the NAACP, Greenpeace and a California church that was really progressive called the All Saints Church in Pasadena, California,” he told reporters. “At that time, we didn’t hear a single Republican grandstand the issue then. Where was their outrage when groups on the other side of the political spectrum were under attack?”

AP: In order to trace a leak of classified information about a foiled bomb plot in Yemen detailed in an AP story last year, the DOJ secretly seized a broad swath of reporter and editor phone records during two months of 2012. AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll says, “I’ve been in this business more than thirty years” and she and the AP’s lawyers have never “seen anything like this.” Attorney General Eric Holder counters, “I’ve been a prosecutor since 1976 and I have to say that this is among, if not the most serious, it is within the top two or three most serious leaks I’ve ever seen. It put the American people at risk. That’s not hyperbole.”

Progressives and journalists hate this kind of dragnet gumshoeing, and rightly so—it freezes out potential sources and whistleblowers, and Obama and his administration have acted, yes, scandalously in pursuing and punishing government leakers.

The Republicans have made a fine art out of demanding Obama do something, then attacking him when he does. During the campaign, Paul Ryan pretended to be outraged that Obama had saved $716 billion in the Medicare program, even though Ryan claimed the same cuts in his own plan. When Obama gave into GOP pressure by proposing the awful “chained CPI” cuts to Social Security benefits, a Republican congressman called it “a shocking betrayal of seniors.”

And now the same Republicans, like Joe Scarborough, who were screaming for Obama to shut down national security leaks like the one in Yemen, are now screaming that he’s trampling on free speech. (See Scarborough and former Obama adviser David Axelrod go at it over this here.)

After attempting damage control on Benghazi by releasing e-mails and the IRS by axing its acting director, the White House is now  trying to quell protests over spying on the press by asking Senator Chuck Schumer to reintroduce a 2009 press shield law that could protect journalists from revealing sources. The proposed law is full of loopholes, a Times editorial says, but as a “peace offering,” it’s a start.

It also dares the GOP to act on its supposed outrage, a way of saying, Blazing Saddles–style, “Stop, or press freedom gets it.”

Let’s fix these problems, then let’s come down from our scandal high and move on, as Joe Klein implies he did. “What is more dangerous to our democracy,” he writes, “the Obama Administration’s massaging of its mistakes or the Republicans’ constant campaign to paralyze our government through diversions like these?”  

Read Leslie Savan on the Cleveland kidnapping and what it says about violence against women.

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