May 24, 2013

Congress will soon adjourn for the Memorial Day recess, and lawmakers will return to their states and districts to explain their policies, defend their votes, and get input from their constituents. And if they’re Republican members of Congress, they will also work to keep the Obama administration’s “scandals” in the air.

Chris Frates reports for National Journal on the GOP’s strategy for the recess: “Both House and Senate Republicans will focus on the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny as well as the still-open questions about Benghazi.”

What’s more, they’ll argue that the White House is stonewalling investigations and refusing to release details, in order to create the impression that there is genuine wrongdoing from President Obama, despite the fact that no one has found evidence of misconduct from the president or the White House.

The goal, Frates writes, is to tie Benghazi and the IRS “together into a made-for–2014 narrative of an unaccountable and out-of-control government.” Republicans hope to generate public discontent, and ride it to victory in next year’s midterm elections, counting also on the tendency — since the end of World War II — for the administration’s party to lose seats in the sixth year of a presidency.

But there are a few problems with this plan. First, while majorities of the public are paying attention to Benghazi and the IRS situation, that hasn’t done much to diminish the standing of President Obama. According the latest WaPo/ABC News poll, 60 percent of Americans say that Republicans in Congress “are mainly concentrating on things that are not important to them personally.” Forty-five percent say the GOP is just posturing when it calls for investigations into recent administration controversies, and few Americans — only 37 percent — trust congressional Republicans to handle the economy, even as they’re divided on President Obama’s ability to do the same.

Likewise, as Greg pointed out earlier this morning, the one set of policies that Republicans could conceivably tout — the sequester spending cuts — are unpopular with a wide swath of Americans. Harping on scandals might generate enthusiasm among the right-wing base, but it does nothing to address the concerns of most voters.

Indeed, as they return to their districts for the recess, Republicans would do well to listen to the advice of Ramesh Ponnuru, a conservative columnist, who recently cautioned Republicans against relying too heavily on controversy to deliver them a victory. As he wrote, “Investigations of the administration won’t supply them with ideas. They won’t make the public trust Republicans. They won’t save them from themselves.”

Or they would do well to listen to the advice of nonpartisan analyst Charlie Cook, who references recent polling showing that solid majorities see Obama as “honest and trustworthy” and a “decisive leader,” and not as a “typical politician”:

Basically, Republicans are attacking Obama where he is least vulnerable and at a time when they have minimal credibility. It isn’t working. By trying to turn everything into a scandal rather than saying Obama’s policies are wrongheaded — and rather than fixing their own image problems with minority, female, younger, and moderate voters — Republicans are focusing on attacking a guy whose name will never again appear on a ballot.

The current situation is reminding many folks of the impeachment controversy in 1998. Blinded by their hatred for President Clinton, Republicans made irrational decisions then, and they are making the same mistakes today.

That sounds exactly right.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.

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