May 8

Last night the House of Representatives voted to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress, on the grounds that she had asserted her Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer their questions, thereby depriving them of the opportunity for what they hoped would be some spectacular grandstanding. You might think that a group of people with such reverence for the Constitution wouldn’t get so angry when certain portions of it, like the Fifth Amendment, become inconvenient to their political ends. But this contempt vote was like the end of a toddler’s tantrum, the final hoarse scream before the child collapses in an exhausted heap on the floor.

You may be wondering: what ever happened to that IRS scandal, anyway? It went the way of pretty much every Obama administration “scandal,” which is that it turned out to be not nearly as scandalous as Republicans had hoped.

In fact, a clear pattern has emerged on how these scandals have unfolded, one that might be helpful to keep in mind as we start paying attention to Benghazi again. Here’s a handy guide:

Stage 1: Worse than Watergate! Whenever a controversy emerges, Republicans immediately jump to the conclusion that they’ve struck political gold. At last, the true depths of the Obama administration’s treachery will be revealed! However much is known at first and whatever the allegations are, Republicans can be relied upon to say it was worse than Watergate, partly because they seem to have forgotten what Watergate was actually about, but mostly because it’s Barack Obama we’re talking about here.

“This makes Watergate look like child’s play,” said Michele Bachmann about Solyndra. “We are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate,” said Peggy Noonan about the IRS (so that means that it wasn’t worse than Watergate, but it was worse than Iran-Contra). And everyone agrees that Benghazi is worse than Watergate. “I have made a study of different cover-ups – the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and Iran-Contra,” said noted scholar Sen. James Inhofe. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I think this is probably the greatest cover-up, in my memory anyway.” Benghazi would drive Barack Obama from office, said Mike Huckabee: “I remind you — as bad as Watergate was, because it broke the trust between the president and the people, no one died. This is more serious because four Americans did in fact die.” Rep. Steve King put it in perspective: “If you link Watergate and Iran-Contra together and multiply it times maybe 10 or so, you’re going to get in the zone where Benghazi is.”

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Stage 2: The facts show something problematic, but not Watergate-level scandal. This is where things get complicated. Every controversy is unique, but the pattern has been that the actual facts do reveal something problematic, but not the criminal malfeasance Republicans were hoping for.

For instance: The IRS scandal was about ill-trained workers ham-handedly trying to apply vague laws they didn’t really understand, not a conspiracy directed from the White House to swing an election by holding up the applications of a bunch of Tea Party groups to get special tax status as social welfare charities. Benghazi was a chaotic mess, and different decisions could have been made leading up to it, but nobody in the White House or the State Department cruelly decided to let American personnel die. Solyndra was one of many companies the government supported in its green tech efforts, and they went bankrupt when the price of silicon for solar panels plummeted and their technology was no longer cost-effective, but there was no nefarious conspiracy.

Every case has lessons that can be learned, but none of them gave Republicans what they were really after: the scandal that would destroy Barack Obama’s presidency.

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Stage 3: The (not so) dramatic hearings. Republicans decide to go ahead with hearings anyway, in most cases overseen by the spectacularly incompetent Darrell Issa, chair of the House Oversight Committee. The hearings reveal no new information, though they do provide an opportunity for Republican members to pretend to be outraged, and for ranking minority member Elijah Cummings to argue bitterly with Issa. In some cases, like Benghazi, this results in a downgrading of the central allegation, from the charge that people high up in the administration were directly responsible for four deaths, to the current charge, that people high up in the administration spun the events after the fact in an attempt to make the administration look good, which is 1) absolutely true, and 2) not a crime.

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Stage 4: The rage at the media for not paying enough attention. A core feature of Republican rhetoric on all these controversies is the complaint that the mainstream media are ignoring the story, and only Fox News is brave enough to bring the truth to the American people. But in fact, in every case, the media did pay attention for a time. Most all of these controversies got blanket coverage for a while. But that coverage inevitably petered out when Republicans were unable to substantiate their most dramatic claims.

You may not need much in the way of facts to get the scandal train moving — breathless allegations and high dudgeon are usually enough — but unless some real misdeeds are revealed, the train will slow to a stop. Republicans’ real problem isn’t that the media didn’t pay attention to the scandals, it’s that there just hasn’t been much there, leaving the media with little choice but to move on.

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Stage 5: The last gasp. That’s what the contempt vote against Lerner is, and in some ways, that’s what the select committee on Benghazi is, although that will be an extended last gasp. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that the select committee is going to uncover nothing meaningful that we don’t already know. Why? First, because there have already been lots of hearings and testimony and investigations and documents turned over, and no malfeasance has been revealed. Second, because I doubt these clowns would be capable of finding anything even if there was anything to find. It’s all about theater.

Indeed, GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy, the head of the new select committee on Benghazi, accidentally admitted as much, as Dana Milbank points out:

Asked by MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough about the possibility that his panel’s work would continue into the 2016 election campaign, Gowdy replied that “if an administration is slow-walking document production, I can’t end a trial simply because the defense won’t cooperate.”

A trial? And the Obama administration is the defense? So much for that “serious investigation” House Speaker John Boehner promised; his new chairman intends to play prosecutor, proving the administration’s guilt to the jury — in this case, the public.

Once the committee convenes, the media will be all over it for the first couple of days. And after it becomes apparent that no blockbuster revelations and no scandalous misbehavior being uncovered, they’ll drift away. And then Republicans will start complaining again that the media are conspiring with the administration in the cover-up.