The Obama Scandals Are Desperate Measures By the GOP

Republicans lack any coherent program other than cutting taxes for the wealthy. That’s why they’re going after Obama now, says Robert Shrum.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

I've written that in the end, congressional Republicans won't agree to move forward on the budget, tax reform, immigration, job creation, or any other issues that matter to mainstream America before the presidential elections. But the fall of 2016 is a long time away, and they have to do something in the meantime. Now we know what it is.

It's not much different from what they've done, or haven't done, all along: obstruct Obama. Traduce him, delegitimize him—and slow economic recovery in hopes that voters will cast a protest vote for the GOP. It worked in 2010, and failed miserably in 2012.

Conservatives are back at it again because the GOP lacks any coherent program other than cutting taxes for the wealthy. Republicans are deeply divided—between the government-hating Tea Party Torquemadas and an establishment that dreads primary defeat, or in John Boehner's case, defenestration as speaker; between the isolationists like Rand Paul and the neo-cons and John McCain.

The animating principle of today's GOP is relentless animus toward the president.

The hard-core base simply rejects his reelection; 49 percent in a Public Policy Poll claim the White House was stolen for Obama last November by groups such as Acorn, Republican-demonized grassroots organization that had disbanded two years earlier. For many on the right, racism is the root of an otherwise inexplicable resistance to the first African-American in the White House. A shrinking rump of older, rural, white America simply can't abide the country they assumed they would always rule now being in the hands of the "other."

GOP members of Congress are—mostly—not that crude or overt. There is Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, a climate-denying fabulist and scowling denizen of the modern-day, flat-earth society, who has suggested impeaching the president for "the most egregious cover-up in American history." He means Benghazi, of course—a concocted conspiracy incomprehensible to most Americans.

Republican leaders in the Senate and House distance themselves from Inhofe, because of the inevitable backlash from voters beyond the fevered precincts of the far right. But fanning the fires of anti-Obama resentment enables Boehner to hold together his restive, fractured caucus—and lets Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell constantly revalidate his ideological credentials. They—and Republicans in general—are taking advantage of three events to bash the president.

The tactic—you can't dignify it by calling it strategy—may finally backfire. First, though, the GOP will prosecute month after month of a multifront war on the White House.

Benghazi is the paranoia they just can't quit: it reflects recrimination for a lost election, and anticipation of an unwinnable election to come. In that sense, it's a twofer that could ensnare both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And the secondary target is almost transparently the primary one. Clinton is the nominee the GOP least wants to face. In their darkest nightmares, they see 16 years of Democratic presidents.

Republicans, Fox News gloats, want Clinton to testify about Benghazi under subpoena. The McCarthyite chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Darrell Issa, has charged, without a shred of evidence, that "[m]aybe, just maybe she knew" about lax security at the CIA outpost in Benghazi or State Department manipulation—another unfounded fabrication—of the talking points afterward. And maybe, just maybe, there are black helicopters with United Nations decals about to descend on heartland America.

As secretary of State, Clinton's responsibilities obviously did not include the personal, day-to-day supervision of hundreds of diplomatic facilities—and certainly not a CIA station. And she's testified that she "wasn't involved in the talking-points process … a typical inter-agency process where staff … come up with whatever was going to be made publicly available, and it was an intelligence product."

What will she do if she testifies again—change her account under Issa's withering questions? Instead, she would likely dominate the proceedings as she has before. She's a commanding, authoritative figure; a recent survey reports that Americans trust her more on Benghazi than congressional Republicans by a margin of 10 percent—and the 39 percent who trust them are undoubtedly knee-jerk opponents of both Clinton and Obama.

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Four Americans died in Benghazi, as did American diplomats and others killed elsewhere in repeated attacks during the Bush administration. Democrats didn't play politics with those tragedies. But now, rather than trying to reduce the risk of it happening again, Republicans, who voted to slash diplomatic security despite Clinton's warnings, want to take their chances against her in another show hearing on the off chance that she'll take a political hit.

The ugliness and innuendo have been reinforced by the latest iteration of "swiftboating," appropriately an ad from Karl Rove's super PAC. The ad is a distortion based on blatantly spliced quotes—and as you might expect, facts are the first casualty. I believe this kind of mudslinging makes Clinton more, not less, likely to run. And if Republicans think this is the way to beat her in 2016, they're in for another sad November night.

If the swiftboating continues, I bet that "Madam President," a new effort just launched by the progressive women at EMILY's List, will air some powerful response ads. We may be at the start of a nearly four-year-long presidential campaign. But why Republicans would want to bring Clinton, the most popular politician in the country, to center stage as they fight out the midterm elections is beyond me. Blasting a woman, especially this woman, is not exactly what a sensible political spin doctor would prescribe for the aptly named Grand Old Party.

Of course, her opponents have attempted something similar before. When she was first lady, the GOP dragged Clinton into a non-scandal called Whitewater. The charges were as convoluted, baseless—and to the average voter, as opaque as the confected allegations about Benghazi. The slanders didn't work then—and they won't work now.

What's entirely plain is the cynically transparent nature of the Republicans' dishonesty on Benghazi—where they won't take truth for an answer or accept the disclosures they've been demanding. The White House has released nearly 100 pages of emails that, by any fair reading, reveal that the talking points were a result of bureaucratic back-and-forth, shrouded by lack of information amid the fog of war, tempered by caution about the pursuit of the perpetrators—and not a preelection political plot. Undeterred, Boehner's spokesman instantly responded that the emails, which The New York Times concluded "suggest that Mr. Obama's staff mostly mediated a bureaucratic tug-of-war … under heavy time constraints from Capitol Hill"—raise questions about "motivation," that the State Department was "seemingly political." This is a "scandal" in search of substance.

The second front of the anti-Obama offensive is the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups. You would have to be out of your mind to believe that the president or anyone in his White House or political operation would order up something like that. Exposure would have shattered Obama's reelection campaign. That's why no one around him was involved in this—even if you wrongly assume that he and his advisers have no sense of right and wrong.

When the revelations hit, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called for firing the IRS commissioner—a Bush appointee who in fact resigned months ago. When the president did fire the acting commissioner, Issa allowed that it was "an extremely good first step." Republican National chairman Reince Priebus slammed the president for doing essentially what Rubio had asked: "This is clearly a scapegoat the detracts from answering the core Qs," he tweeted. He brazenly added that Obama had "created a culture … that encouraged" the abuse. No proof, no plausibility.

The third of the "woes" suddenly plaguing the administration isn't a scandal in any credible sense of the word. It's a controversy, a debate, about the Justice Department's secret subpoena of phone records from AP journalists during an investigation into leaks about a thwarted terrorist operation. It should be hard for Republicans, who crafted the broadly intrusive powers of the Patriot Act, to complain; but this is Obama, so they did. The leakers could be administration officials; the administration has been investigating itself—after Republicans protested the leaks. Predictably, Priebus called for Attorney General Eric Holder's resignation; Holder had recused himself from the case.

This is one place where a number of Democrats weighed in—not to bring down Holder or Obama, but as California congresswoman Zoe Lofgren put it, to warn of "the danger done to a free press." The pursuit of leaks, unless the sources are almost instantly apparent, is generally a futile and self–defeating exercise—in a campaign or in government. In any event, the president has now asked Sen. Chuck Schumer to reintroduce a shield law that would limit but not eliminate federal authority to probe journalists' confidential sources. For example, there would be an exception for preventing terrorist acts.

The story is a perfect Washington storm, far more interesting to the media than, say, jobs, tax policy, or education. And the administration's rapid response has often been anything but rapid. In the end, however, the real story may turn out to be GOP overreach.

The PPP survey finds that Americans believe Congress should focus on big issues like immigration and gun control rather than a "scandal" like Benghazi. Republicans in Congress who make no substantive progress, whose entire purpose is to besiege the president, may themselves pay a painful political price.

Bill Clinton could tell Obama about it—because he lived it during the attempt to impeach him. In 1998, aggrieved voters, who thought Washington should be attending to their needs, not endless investigations, delivered an historic midterm defeat to the GOP. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was forced to resign.

Now, just as they were then, Republicans are driven by the politics of personal destruction. It's all they've got—and it's red meat for the media. If the target isn’t Clinton, it's Obama—or the other Clinton. And the Republicans will do it again and again—to President Obama in these years and maybe to President Clinton at the start of her second term in 2021.