Republicans have been given a political gift. Here’s how they can (still) screw it up.

May 16, 2013

You could forgive Republicans for thinking they had happened upon an electoral golden goose over the past five days.


A gift. iStock photo.

The twin investigations into the IRS's flagging of tax-exempt status applications for conservative groups and the secret seizure of reporters' phone records by the Justice Department, as well as the ongoing GOP drumbeat regarding the terrorist attack last fall in Benghazi, Libya, have thrust the Obama administration (and the Democratic party) into a defensive crouch. It's a rare moment since President Obama's reelection last fall when the GOP can play offense.

And yet, there are real concerns within the Republican establishment that members of their party won't look before they leap when it comes to the right strategic path forward, taking a major political opportunity and blowing it, à la the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s.

"Republicans need only remember 1998 when they overplayed Monica Lewinsky and turned a promising midterm into almost losing the House," said former Virginia congressman Tom Davis (R). "The Republicans have a political buffet in front of them. No need to gorge themselves.... [They] need to pace themselves."

There is already some evidence that Republicans in Congress aren't heeding Davis's advice. “Of all the great cover-ups in history — the Pentagon papers, the Iran-Contra, Watergate and all the rest of them — this … is going to go down as the most serious, the most egregious cover-up in American history,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said during an appearance on a radio show regarding Benghazi. "People may be starting to use the I-word before too long,” Inhofe added.  Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) also has raised the possibility of impeachment on Benghazi but has insisted that's not his goal.

As we have written, the majority of Republican strategists we have talked to in the past week have made very clear that the party should focus on the IRS (and, to a lesser extent, the AP phone records story) and not on Benghazi due to the fact that it has already become totally politicized.

And, any talk of impeachment  -- regardless of the motivation -- is a political misstep, according to GOP pollster Glen Bolger. "The area we have to avoid is to not use the 'I' word -- impeachment," said Bolger. "It is far too early for that, and talking about impeachment now means you are not serious about the issue -- you are just trying to score political points."

Bolger's advice? Use the IRS and AP stories to make a broader point about the differing views the parties have of the role of government. "AP and IRS are what happens when you elect people who worship at the altar of unfettered government," explained Bolger. "Big, powerful government is not the answer."

Another Republican consultant, granted anonymity to speak candidly, added that his party has to double track -- investigating wrongdoing while also pushing its own positive agenda.  "This is part of my concern about the GOP being the poster child of Washington dysfunction because all we ever do is block legislation, we never pass anything," the source wrote in an e-mail to The Fix. "We need to deal with immigration, budget, tax reform, etc. etc. while we’re doing this."

The problem in all of this? That there is no clear leader of the Republican Party at the moment. Without that person, keeping the various elements of the GOP on the same messaging plan -- particularly on an issue like Benghazi or the IRS that really fires up the party's base -- is extremely difficult. (See Speaker John Boehner's failed "Plan B" during the fiscal cliff.)

This is a major political opportunity for Republicans. It's also a test of the party's discipline.

Miller forced to resign as acting IRS head: Obama announced Wednesday that acting IRS head Steven T. Miller had resigned after the president demanded it. It was the most concrete step Obama has taken so far in response to the scandal involving the agency's targeting of conservative groups. But with an ongoing criminal investigation and hearings slated on Capitol Hill, it's far from the end of a story that doesn't have a short-term conclusion in sight.

This much, though, was clear on Wednesday, as The Post's Zachary A. Goldfarb and Juliet Eilperin noted: The White House made an effort to stamp out its biggest political fires that have been spreading rapidly the past week. Taken together, the Miller resignation, a release of e-mails related to Benghazi, and the call for a new media shield law illustrate the seriousness of the issues that have put the president very much on defense.

EMILY'S List puts six "On the List": EMILY's List, the PAC that support pro-abortion rights women candidates, announced six House contenders will be put "On the List," a designation that flags them for members and donors. The group is adding Ann Callis (IL-13), Katherine Clark (MA-05), Jessica Ehrlich (FL-13), Gwen Graham (FL-02), Eloise Reyes (CA-31), and Martha Robertson (NY-23).

Fixbits: 

For the 37th time, the House will vote on a repeal of Obamacare today. Here are the details of the first 36 repeal votes.

The White House is pushing for a new media shield law in the aftermath of the seizure of AP employee phone records. Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder offered few new details about the AP case in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.

The White House released the 2012 financial disclosure reports from Obama and Biden.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon said that his committee has taken concrete steps to shore up its polling apparatus.

Massachusetts Republican Senate nominee Gabriel Gomez is under new scrutiny over his home.

Former congressman/governor Mark Sanford officially became Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) once again. His fiancee, Maria Belen Chapur, attended his swearing-in ceremony.

Must-reads: 

"Obama struggles to get beyond a scandal trifecta" -- Karen Tumulty, Washington Post

"Obama administration releases e-mails detailing agencies’ debate over Benghazi" -- Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung, Washington Post

"Eric Holder Offers Little Information, Much Ire for Republicans" -- Shane Goldmaher, National Journal

"Immigration group in the House facing make-or-break moment" -- Russell Berman, The Hill

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Sean Sullivan | May 15, 2013