If you feel like 2014 is starting to feel a lot like 2013, you are not alone. Republicans and Democrats are fussing over the Benghazi investigation. And last night the House voted 231 (including six Democrats) to 187 to hold in contempt former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner, who had pleaded the Fifth Amendment, after she made a long statement that arguably waived the right to avoid self-incrimination.
Now the matter will be referred to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. The contempt charge will then be referred to a grand jury for further review, but it is unclear how the Justice Department will proceed. Politically, however, House Republicans will be able to declare victory after working swiftly in the last year to investigate the matter and hold a senior IRS official accountable for the agency’s decision and her unwillingness to cooperate with a congressional investigation.
If ever convicted, Lerner could face between one and 12 months in jail and a fine of up to $100,000.
With Wednesday’s vote, Lerner becomes one of only a handful of government officials found in contempt of Congress in recent years.
If the administration had turned over all the Benghazi-related documents a year ago and if Lerner had cooperated or kept entirely quiet in her appearance before the House committee investigating the IRS’s purported targeting of conservative groups, both of these scandals would be out of the news.
As an electoral matter, I suspect that the scandals don’t move many voters one way or the other this November. If you voted for the president once or twice, liked Obamacare, thought the economy was fine and approved delays on the Keystone XL pipeline, you didn’t wake up one morning, read about Ben Rhodes and decide to vote for every Republican on the ballot in November. Likewise, if you’re a disgusted independent who thinks Obamacare is a mess, however well-intentioned, and the country is on the wrong track, any concern about GOP “overreach” in these investigations isn’t likely to send you running back into the arms of the Democrats.
As on Obamacare, newer information on these scandals has less and less impact on voters as time goes on; minds were made up a while ago. Although they may affect turnout (mostly to pump up Republicans) on the margins, they are unlikely to make a huge difference in determining control of the Senate where more important factors certainly include the primary race outcomes, the performance of individual candidates and the record of incumbent Democrats.
We aren’t going to see many GOP Senate and House challengers run on the IRS or Benghazi scandals, although the appeal of outsiders such as Monica Wehby in Oregon plays on the general frustration with Beltway operators. That is how it should be. Republicans’ best issues are generally Obamacare and jobs, the issues voters care most about.
Ironically, the time when the Obama-era scandals may really matter is in 2016. In 2000, George W. Bush promised to restore honor to the White House, and then Sen-Barack Obama (D-Ill.) ran in 2008 promising to end bitter partisanship and “the way business was done” inside the Beltway. Likewise, in 2016, the GOP candidates running to replace Obama will be smart to pledge to restore fair and honest governance and to suggest that the way to put an era of political abuses behind us is not to put the Clintons back in the White House.
That, in turn, will make the individual records and personalities of the GOP candidates all the more critical. The public’s desire for yet another fresh start precludes those who have been immersed in the partisan battles of late. That’s a problem for senators seeking the presidential nomination. As for governors, New Jersey’s Chris Christie has every right to complain about unfair media coverage, but the bridge scandal inevitably diminishes his message as the guy to come clean up Washington. By contrast, with the political witch hunt ended by a judge, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is certainly freed up to run as a Midwest reformer. A reliable record of effective and honest governing — what a concept! — will be a plus for candidates.
The irony of the lingering scandals is therefore threefold. First, they may matter more in 2016 than 2014. Second, they put a greater premium on squeaky clean outsiders. And, along with Hillary Clinton’s record of foreign policy failures and lack of new ideas, the stench of scandals may cause Democrats and Republicans alike to wonder if they can’t do better than the Clinton duo.