How to Stop a Scandal

Washington’s understanding of damage control is all wrong, says Michael Tomasky.

Pool photo by Olivier Douliery

Did I, as a liberal columnist who called immediately on President Obama to seek Eric Holder’s resignation over the Associated Press scandal, provide aid and comfort to the enemy? First of all, I don’t care—what happened struck me as a serious abuse of power. It’s rather obvious to all of you that I support Obama’s agenda in broad terms, but I sure don’t support what happened with the AP. And second, no, I don’t think I provided them aid and comfort anyway. In fact I think recent history shows beyond a doubt that foot-dragging and avoidance are the true aid-and-comforters; they always, always, always make these things worse. That, not my recommended course of action, is what’s going to give Republicans both fodder and power. Thus my aphorism of the week: trying to contain damage only does more damage.

The president demonstrated that he understood this point with respect to the IRS situation—to Republicans, the most toothsome of the three problems the White House is now trying to manage. Firing the acting IRS commissioner within days was the kind of move Obama hasn’t made often enough while in office. He knows very well how potentially dangerous this issue is for him, but whatever the motivation, good for him for moving so fast and striking an assertive posture.

In contrast, Holder’s two attempts at damage control on Tuesday and Wednesday, his press conference and his testimony to the House, struck a defensive one. At his press conference, he wasn’t sure how often reporters’ records are seized, among other lapses. The next day on the Hill, he acknowledged that he did not submit his recusal in writing (it took all of eight seconds for someone on Twitter to produce the relevant legal language showing that such was required), and that he couldn’t remember the date! All Holder’s damage control accomplished was the raising of more questions that will be masticated for days and days.

Bad and defensive damage control also helped make Benghazi the mess that it became. Why, I remember wondering at the time, is the administration so terrified of acknowledging straight up that this might have been a terrorist attack? Yes, I know all the reasons. But they were mostly bad reasons. I truly don’t think your average American would have responded by thinking that the administration that nabbed bin Laden had failed America. He or she would more likely have thought, Well, it’s a dangerous world out there, especially in a godforsaken place like that, and we can’t stop ’em all, I guess.

But the damage-control practitioners say: no! The Republicans, Fox, Limbaugh, yadda yadda… They’d have made us into traitors in a week’s time. To which I respond: well, you did acknowledge it was a terrorist attack, and what happened? Nothing! You won the election by a mile! In fact, Jay Carney acknowledged that it was a terrorist attack on September 20. Wanna guess which day Mitt Romney first referred to it as a terrorist attack? September 25! That isn’t exactly what I’d call pouncing on Carney’s long-awaited admission. So when Carney and the White House finally abandoned damage control mode, not one bad thing happened to them.

It was good that Wednesday the administration released 100 pages of emails showing that it was the CIA, more than the State Department, that pushed to take out references to terrorism and al Qaeda. But is there really a good reason that it took eight months to round these emails up? If the White House had released these emails last December, Republicans would still be talking about Benghazi, but this hearing last week and its phony revelations might never even have happened.

The Benghazi example highlights the key error, I believe, of the damage-control mentality: the conviction that scandals are a zero-sum competition; that if your side is losing, the other side is winning. That’s certainly true inside the Beltway. But it isn’t true at all outside of it, because most people, not being intense partisans, just don’t see politics that way. Most people don’t think, “Oh, my, Obama didn’t protect that consulate in Benghazi, so Rush Limbaugh must be right, I’m voting for Romney.” Most people don’t think that just because Obama screwed something up, the Republicans could do it better.

Obama may want to keep Holder because he thinks he’s a fine attorney general, and if that’s the case, well, then I guess it’s the case. But if he thinks this scandal is bad and Holder’s response is lame, he should cut him loose, and the sooner the better. I dispute in the strongest possible terms the mentality that says, “But that would just be giving the GOP a scalp.” No. It would be showing the American people, most of whom don’t think in terms of scalps, that some things cross your own moral line. It invests you with character.

The Republicans are going to do what they’re going to do. On these matters in particular, they’re Pavlovian cavemen. The way to beat them is not to forestall or worry about who scored points today. It’s to make a case to the broader public through actions—and timely actions, not actions taken only after great delay so it looks as if they were forced on you—that you are in charge and trying to run an honest shop. Hemming and hawing is the true aid and comfort.