Over the weekend, CNN released the first extensive national polling on the “scandals” that have gripped Washington, and it got a bit of a bounce yesterday over two key findings. First, Obama’s approval rating is holding steady (53 percent) despite the scandal chatter. Second, majorities don’t believe the GOP has overreached.
But dig into the internals of the poll and you find something striking. In the case of the IRS and Benghazi stories, the lurid and nefarious view of Obama’s involvement in them being peddled by the right is held only by Republicans — big majorities of them — while most moderates and independents, i.e. the middle of the country, believe the White House’s arguments.
* The IRS scandal: Among overall Americans, 61 percent say what Obama has said about the matter is mostly or completely true, versus only 35 percent who say it’s mostly or completely false. Among Republicans, 68 percent say what Obama has claimed is false, and among conservatives, 56 percent say this. But independents believe what Obama has said is true by 58-36, and moderates believe this by 71-25.
Meanwhile, among overall Americans, 55 percent say the IRS acted on its own in targeting conservative groups, while only 37 percent say the White House ordered it. Among Republicans, 62 percent say the White House ordered it, and among conservatives, 54 percent believe this. But independents believe the IRS acted on its own by 53-36, and moderates believe this by 65-29.
* The Benghazi story: Among overall Americans, 50 percent believe early statements about the attacks by Obama officials reflected what the administration believed at the time, while 44 percent believe they intentionally misled. Among Republicans, 76 percent believe they intentionally misled, and among conservatives, 65 percent believe this. But moderates believe the statements reflected the administration’s beliefs by 60-35. (Among independents this isn’t as pronounced, but still, a plurality sides with the White House, 47-44.)
These two stories are presidential scandals only in the minds of majorities of Republicans. This helps explain why Obama’s approval is holding.
Now, it’s true that a large majority believes the Benghazi attacks could have been prevented, 59-36, but that question doesn’t go to motive — it doesn’t ask whether the Obama administration deliberately allowed the attacks. And it’s also true that in both cases, majorities say there are serious matters at stake and that the GOP has not overreached in pursuing them. That’s understandable, since very legitimate questions remain about the security in Benghazi, and the IRS tale still requires a complete accounting. All of this gives Republicans incentives to keep it up.
But the fact that overwhelming majorities of Republicans already have accepted the right’s sinister narratives of presidential wrongdoing and cover-ups will effectively require GOP officials to keep tilting their lances at those particular storylines. It will require them to keep chasing after evidence of presidential scandals akin to Watergate and even to keep tacitly or overtly hinting that they may exist, even if they never materialize. That does risk leading to overreach.
All of this could obviously change if ongoing investigations do turn up something more directly damaging to the White House. But for now, the GOP’s pursuit of Watergate-level wrongdoing represents yet another way in which the party remains captive to a version of reality that has total buy-in from the GOP base but is isolated from broader public opinion.
* BUT DEM STRATEGISTS WORRY ABOUT IRS IMPACT ON 2014: Politico talks to Dem strategists (some unnamed) who worry that the IRS scandal could damage House candidates in 2014, particularly among independents. The core question is whether Republicans can turn the IRS scandal into a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the Dem embrace of Big Government. The counter-argument:
Democrats do have a plan to fight back. As congressional investigations kick into high gear in the coming weeks, they plan to brand Republicans as obsessed with going after Obama and uninterested in what really matters to everyday Americans — resuscitating the battered economy.
This is where potential GOP overreach could come in.
* OBAMA TO ADDRESS DRONES AND GUANTANAMO: The President will give a speech on Thursday in which he is expected to offer more clarity on his drone policy and intentions towards Guantanamo. Two things to watch for: Whether he clearly spells out a plan to produce genuine transparency and accountability on the drone program; and whether he clarifies the administration’s position on indefinite detention. The administration supports indefinite detention, but Obama himself recently questioned the idea. Clarity required on both fronts.
* GOP OFFICIALS ADMIT NO EVIDENCE OF OBAMA INVOLVEMENT: On Meet the Press yesterday, Mitch McConnell and GOP Rep. Dave Camp, the leader of the House probe of the IRS story, made key concessions. Asked whether evidence existed that Obama directed the scrutiny of conservative groups, McConnell said: “I don’t think we know what the facts are.” And Camp said: “We don’t have anything to say that the president knew about this.”
However, the investigation into the IRS story will continue, as well it should.
* WHITE HOUSE LEARNED OF IRS STORY WEEKS AGO: The Wall Street Journal reports:
The White House’s chief lawyer learned weeks ago that an audit of the Internal Revenue Service likely would show that agency employees inappropriately targeted conservative groups, a senior White House official said Sunday.
This will be seized on to ask “what the president knew and when.” But former White House counsels told the Journal that Obama’s White House counsel was right not to tell the President about this, because it would create appearances of meddling in an ongoing investigation.
* WHAT REPUBLICANS WILL FOCUS ON NEXT: Also in the above Journal story, a glimpse at the next target for Republicans in the IRS scandal:
Republicans are expected to zero in on the question of who in the Obama administration’s senior ranks knew about the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups, especially before the November election last year.
GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, a leader of House GOP probes, says: “Exactly who in the administration knew what about the IRS targeting is one of the key outstanding questions.” All of this will be aired out at hearings this week, and the key GOP goal is to push the targeting of conservative groups as close to Obama as possible.
Of course, as Steve Benen notes, the Treasury Department says it sent a letter to Issa himself last year alerting him that Treasury’s inspector general was looking at the IRS charges.
* CINCINNATI IRS OFFICE A MESS: The New York Times did a deep dive this weekend into the goings-on at the IRS office in question, and found mostly incompetence and confusion in the face of a tide of applications. Key nugget:
Overseen by a revolving cast of midlevel managers, stalled by miscommunication with I.R.S. lawyers and executives in Washington and confused about the rules they were enforcing, the Cincinnati specialists flagged virtually every application with Tea Party in its name. But their review went beyond conservative groups: more than 400 organizations came under scrutiny, including at least two dozen liberal-leaning ones and some that were seemingly apolitical.
* LOIS LERNER TO BE GRILLED THIS WEEK: Relatedly, see Glenn Kessler’s debunking of early statements about the scandal from Lois Lerner, the director of the exempt organizations division. She will be grilled at upcoming hearings, and one hopes that it will be established with more clarity just how the Tea Party groups specifically were singled out.
* THOMAS PICKERING DEFENDS HIMSELF: In an interview with Joe Conason, the American diplomat who released a recent report harshly criticizing Benghazi security lapses hits back at Republicans who will only depose him in private. Pickering reiterates that dispatching special forces to Benghazi would not have prevented the attacks. And he again repeats that he found no problems with how Hillary Clinton and her deputies handled the night of the attack.
* AND RAND PAUL’S VERSION OF THE IRS SCANDAL: Great catch by Taegan Goddard here: Rand Paul told CNN that there was a “written policy” inside the IRS that claimed IRS officials were “targeting people who were opposed to the president.” But when pressed, Paul said he had not seen such a written statement but had only heard about it.
This is exactly the sort of thing that helps explain the isolation of GOP opinion on the question of presidential wrongdoing, as demonstrated in the polling above.