The IRS scandal appears to be growing. The news that the Justice Department targeted Associated Press phone records has justifiably triggered a vociferous outcry. The Benghazi tale is mostly a bogus “scandal,” but it continues to be treated as the real thing by reporters who should know better. We’re looking at investigations that stretch over the horizon. The air is thick with talk about Obama’s “second term curse,” and the possibility that the administration could find its credibility damaged by the scandal pile-up is very real.
But cut through the noise and jubilation among Republicans and conservatives, and a basic fact about our current political dynamic remains in place: Republicans still need to figure out how to get their base to stop damaging the party’s efforts to remake itself.
As Politico puts it this morning, while the scandal-mania sweeping Washington contains great risks for Obama, it also carries a serious potential downside for Republicans:
The decision to engage in a multipronged attack against the Obama administration poses both risks and rewards for the Republican leadership. The party has yet to fully coalesce around a legislative agenda, a plan to raise the debt ceiling or a broad-based governing strategy. Republicans, who have tried to soften their image, now risk being defined by shouting matches. Their job-creating message is in danger of being overshadowed by scandal.
All the scandal-fueled excitement is about to run headlong into the reality of immigration reform. The Senate is likely to pass a reform compromise widely loathed by the right, and House Republicans will have to figure out a way to get the base to accept it — or to pass it with mostly Democratic support, which would badly damage John Boehner. Failure means the GOP gets saddled with the blame for killing reform — dealing a severe blow to hopes of repairing relations with Latinos, even as demographic reality marches on.
Republican leaders are still trying to figure out how to get House conservatives to accept the need for a debt ceiling hike; they face the very real prospect of getting caught up in a messy debt limit showdown that will only underscore the GOP addiction to crisis-to-crisis governing. Republicans still are dealing with a base that’s in the grip of Obamacare dead-enderism. They must continue feeding delusions that Obamacare will be repealed — even as they plan to campaign against Obamacare implementation failures, while failing to offer anything in the way of a meaningful health reform alternative.
Republican leaders like Eric Cantor can’t get the base to accept even the most modest efforts to recast the GOP agenda. There is no sign Republicans will ever accept the need for new revenues from the rich. That means there isn’t going to be any fiscal deal anytime soon that gives Republicans the entitlement cuts they claim they want — and will make it harder for the GOP to shake its image as the party of the rich. The reflexive anti-government fervor hasn’t diminished, making it harder for the party to articulate a positive role for government in people’s lives, which even some right leaning writers acknowledge is necessary.
Republicans are seizing on all the scandal-mania to paper over these problems and to reunite the party and excite the base heading into 2014. That very well may prove effective, but as Politico notes, revving up the base also risks making it even harder for the party to develop a legislative agenda that goes beyond “shouting matches.” As Brian Beutler recently noted, even Boehner’s own public statements amount to an implicit acknowledgment that the Tea Party is controlling the asylum. The scandal mania is unlikely to diminish that dynamic — it could even make it worse.
So, yes, the White House is getting buffeted by multiple scandal narratives, and the GOP is banking on its ability to roll them into one “Big Brother Obama” storyline that will shower the party with political gold. But it remains to be seen whether banking on the hope that all of this alone will weaken Obama and Dems enough to carry Republicans through 2014 and 2016 is really all that good a long term plan for a party whose own leading lights widely acknowledge the need for a major rethink of its policies and public image.
* What to watch for next in immigration fight: Opponents of immigration reform are preparing to introduce another set of poison pill amendments designed to scuttle the current Senate compromise proposal, this one focused on breaking up the business-labor compromise on the guest worker program, one of the more contentious aspects of the bill for the right wing.
However, all indications are that the “Gang of Eight” will remain united in blocking these amendments at the committee level, just as they did in blocking the last round of them. This underscores again that there is genuine bipartisan agreement underpinning the current reform framework — as opposed to a more conservative framework — which bodes well for it passing the Senate.
* IRS scandal grows: The latest from the Post:
Internal Revenue Service officials in Washington and at least two other offices were involved with investigating conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, making clear that the effort reached well beyond the branch in Cincinnati that was initially blamed, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
At this point, the need for a full accounting is overwhelming — including a full list of all the groups targeted.
* IRS scandal could boost GOP in 2014: Nate Silver has a good analysis explaining why the GOP leadership has every incentive to keep hammering the IRS story: It will very likely boost turnout in the 2014 elections, because the scandal element is easy to grasp, offers an easy target in the IRS, and cuts against Obama’s post partisan brand.
GOP leaders need this to reunite the party around at a time when other factors — such as the looming immigration reform votes — are leaving the base angry and dispirited with the leadership.
* Selective outrage in phone-tapping scandal? A variety of civil liberties organizations and free press advocates are rightly slamming the Justice Department over the news that it has obtained a wide range of phone records from Associated Press reporters and editors, apparently as part of a leak investigation. But as Charlie Savage and Leslie Kaufman point out, Republicans now expressing outrage previously criticized the Justice Department for not being aggressive enough in a previous media leak investigation. Now they’re claiming (rightly, it seems) Justice has gone too far.
* Why the Justice Department probe is alarming: Veteran investigative reporter Michael Isikoff spells it out:
“It is not unprecedented for the Justice Department to secretly get the numbers of reporters,” he said. “What’s remarkable is the sweeping nature of this, the dragnet approach … and that’s why you have some press watchdog groups tonight, and freedom of the press groups saying this is positively Nixonian. They have not seen a precedent for this in decades.”
Meanwhile, Sari Horowitz explains that the probe is into the leaking of classified info about a foiled Al Qaeda plot last year: “the news organization and its reporters and editors are not the likely targets of the investigation. Rather, the inquiry is probably aimed at current or former government officials who divulged classified information.”
* The problem with the Benghazi “scandal”: David Brooks, in discussing those revisions of the Benghazi talking points, puts his finger on the rub of the matter:
The first draft, like every subsequent one, said the Benghazi attacks were spontaneously inspired by protests in Cairo. It also said that extremists with ties to Al Qaeda participated.
As Brooks notes, the reference to Al Qaeda was subsequently removed from the talking points. But as I’ve been saying here, the key is that at no point did the talking points ever describe a pre-planned terror attack, which means administration assessments were, in fact, roughly in line with what the intel community had concluded.
* But the White House is mishandling its messaging: Obama is now arguing that he did initially describe the attacks as an “act of terrorism.” Obama actually referred only indirectly to the attacks as an “act of terror,” and subsequently declined to describe it as terrorism. And as Glenn Kessler points out, it would be far better for the White House to state clearly that the intel community’s initial assessment was not that this was an act of terrorism, and that the administration was, in fact, reflecting that assessment.
* Dem group targets Karl Rove: The Bridge Project, a 501(c)4 allied with the White House, is out with a new video that hits back at Rove’s assaults on Hillary Clinton over Benghazi by recapping Rove’s “deception” in the run-up to the Iraq War. The move — like Rove’s previous Benghazi video — underscores the degree to which the battle over Benghazi has gotten caught up in the politics of 2016.
“If he were a woman, they’d be calling him the weakest speaker in history.”
The serious point here is that Boehner really has needed to rely on Democratic support to get a good deal passed in spite of Tea Party opposition, and that probably will apply to immigration reform, too.