Leon Wolf is right: Benghazi has been over for months.

This week, RedState’s Leon Wolf opined that Benghazi investigations had run their course. He’s right – regardless of how important the scandal is or isn’t, it simply hasn’t stuck to Hillary Clinton.

What’s more, this should have been obvious a month and a half ago, when we were all getting ready for the Super Bowl. Remember the dust-up over whether the Patriots improperly deflated footballs?

All scandals need a name, and most called this one “Deflategate.” But some called it “Ballghazi.” Anecdotally, I heard that version most from New Englanders, who complained that the whole thing was a non-story.  The Washington Post noticed:

This could, of course, be a semantic weakness of “-ghazi” as an scandal label — it suggests a would-be scandal, not an actual one… In that sense, said [Dartmouth Professor Brendan] Nyhan, “-ghazi” functions in the same way as “-gate” — ironically, as a way to mock high-profile controversies as manufactured pseudo-scandals.

It was obvious early on that the -ghazi suffix had the same potential as the -gate suffix, but it hasn’t come to pass. Patriots’ likely cheating exposed that there isn’t a consensus that Benghazi is a legitimate scandal – or at least, what exactly the scandal is. There are apparently other albatrosses to hang around Hillary Clinton’s neck (or so I read), but this isn’t one of them.

How to handle a scandal? Pick on coal.

President Bill Clinton was “Slick Willy” long before the Lewinsky perjury scandal.  But that one kind of cemented the legacy.  The President lied about an affair with a subordinate to a Grand Jury (who was investigating a sexual harassment claim by a former subordinate), lied about lying about it to the American people, and eventually got to keep his job as if none of it happened.  Famously, Dick Morris’s polling showed that the American people didn’t care about his boss’s poling so long as it was a matter of personal indiscretion and not a government matter.  When Clinton and Co. managed to turn the whole circus into a story about sex, it lost its steam.

President Barack Obama is in plenty of hot water today, and his approval rating is starting to wane.  Even the hard left is less than pleased with the NSA revelations.

How does the President blunt the scandal-based criticism and win back his most ardent supporters?  The same way Santa punishes bad kids: coal.  In a speech on Tuesday, the President has promised bold action through executive fiat on climate change.  Coal plants are expected by be in the crosshairs, as they have been since Obama was a candidate.

The rules don’t have to go into effect for Obama to win.  The best case scenario for the administration plays out like this:

  • Pro-energy groups, who tend to have plenty of allies on the right, react strongly to the rules.  Words and actions from the center-right are focused on the President’s extreme agenda.  Suddenly, the most influential opinion-leading voices drop the discussions about non-impeachable issues like the IRS targeting the Tea Party and the NSA surveillance programs.
  • Environmentally-themed left-wing groups rally to shut down coal plants.  There are teach-ins, rallies, and maybe even a hunger strike or two supporting the President’s crusade rather than defending Edward Snowden.
  • Energy industry companies and trade groups spend money on paid advertising and grassroots activation to mobilize public support opposing the rule changes.  Every computer screen in Washington, D.C. that pulls up Politico sees banner ads about clean coal, and pro-coal TV spots run during the local DC news.

Clinton made it through a scandal by getting people to look at it in a different way and trying to win popular sentiment to his side.  Obama may get through a half dozen scandals by prioritizing a hot button issue to create the type of hyper-political environment he claims to hate.


Obama’s Bad News Power Rankings, 5.31.2013

President Obama’s approval rating remains high despite all the bad news.  Good for him.  It’s not a bad thing for conservatives and Republicans that Obama is getting a pass – it focuses the discussion on government overreach, rather than trying to hang these scandals on one person.  It makes for a better policy discussion in the long term.

  1. Department of Justice vs. the First Amendment.  (Last week: 3)  Eric Holder is not so lucky as his boss: 42% of Americans think he ought to pack up and leave.  After word surfaced that the DOJ zeroed in on Fox News’s James Rosen, Holder flirted with perjury charges.  His ham-fisted attempt at reconciling with the fourth estate and demonstrating transparency was an off the record meeting, because nothing says “I love free speech” better than “Shh!”  Sidebar: It would have been hilarious if some press outlet had gone and then reported on the events verbatim.  Most of the media opted for the high road (stop laughing) and opted not to go.
  2. Entitlements.  (NEW!) Call this a dark horse.  Social Security isn’t doing well, and neither is Medicare.  California health insurance premiums are rising due to Obamacare.  This represents a huge messaging opportunity for the GOP.
  3. Benghazi.  (Last week: 2)  The drumbeat of bad news is starting to take its toll on Hilary Clinton.  She’s not a particularly scary or formidable figure in 2014 or 2016, but if you’re scoring at home that’s the second current or former member of Obama’s cabinet that the American people have soured on.
  4. The IRS vs. the Tea Party, et al. (Last week: 1)  There are so many pieces of bad news that inevitably, one of the big scandals fades to the background in any given week.  This one would have dropped off, but for another “dark horse” wrinkle – that the agency may have targeted adoptive families and small businesses unfairly.  This development would move the IRS’s actions from the realm of patently unfair to heavy-handed and just plain mean.
  5. Campaign developments.  (NEW!) left-wing SuperPACs must have been salivating to use Michele Bachmann as the poster child for the Republican candidate class of 2014; when she bowed out of her race her Democrat challenger did as well.  Ed Markey in Massachusetts is sinking into a dead heat with Gabriel Gomez.  In New Mexico, Susana Martinez well-positioned against potential challengers.  Bad campaign news tends to snowball, and that portends a big chilling effect on the Presidential agenda.

A Great Week for Team Obama?

Megan McArdle might be onto something:

In finance, there’s an art known as “Big Bath Accounting” which is used to manage earnings expectations.  Here’s how it works:  if you know you’re going to have a bad quarter, you look around for anything else that might go wrong in the future, and you decide to “recognize” that bad news now.  Inventory looking a little stale?  Write it down, man!  Customers getting a little slow to pay?  Now would be a good time to write off their accounts as bad debt… The theory is that there is only so much bad news people can take in all at once, so you might as well cram all the bad stuff into one action-packed earnings call.

This is a couple days old, but the more you think about it – and the more news cycles turn since ScandalFest 2013 dropped – the more sense it makes that having all this hit at once is a good thing for the White House.

None of the controversies has been what any serious commentator would call impeachable, but each serves to damage credibility.  Imagine if they were spaced out a little more.  If the IRS scandal broke after two weeks of talking about the Benghazi hearings, and was subsequently followed by the AP/DOJ dust-up breaking a week or two after that, it would be far worse for all the President’s men.  Each scandal would be discussed in its own spotlight for a little while, but the timing would still maintain that “Groundhog Day” feeling.

In order for the current blitzkrieg to be as damaging, new information will have to come out fairly regularly over the course of several months.  That’s a lot of new stuff that would have to break, like the President said, there may not be that much “there” there.  Meanwhile, a public with a short attention span and a media looking for fresh news will find new stuff to talk about.  Democrats who are looking for fundraising and grassroots support in the mid-term elections will be slow to criticize the President.

On top of that, scandal discussion sucks up a lot of oxygen that could be used on other issues.  Higher taxes are shrinking paychecks, and Obamacare is making American health care more expensive and complex.  The policy environment is ripe for Republican criticism, but the line that connects a big government that taxes too much and overreaches on programs with a big government that swipes reporters’ phone records and harasses its opponents is not starkly obvious to casual observers.  And there’s always the chance for a Republican politician trying to overplay his or her party’s hand.

The last couple of weeks may have been tough to get through.  There’s still plenty of time for the scandals to fade into the background and there will be opportunities for the President to go back on offense.  If all this bad news was going to hit anyway, having it hit at once was the best possible outcome for the White House.

Sometimes a crummy week makes for a better year.

Scandals! The Bad News Power Rankings

Jay Carney faced the press today, and… Yikes!  That was rough!

On some level, you have to respect Carney.  He could have woken up, faxed in a resignation Pat Riley style, rented an office near Farragut Square and started counting money.   Instead, he chose to answer questions in the face of Scandalpalooza.  And even if he had a rough day, none of the scandals are impeachable.

They are damaging, though.  In fact, the last week and a half has heaped layer after layer of bad news on the White House doorstep.  The mid-term elections are now 18 months away, and the window for putting up any meaningful legislative wins is maybe 10-12 months.  President will have a tougher time advancing his agenda while responding to all the bad news.  Ranked below are the President’s top speed bumps (that we know about so far today), with 1 being the most disruptive to the President’s agenda and 5 the least:

  1. DOJ vs. AP  – People appreciate unfairness, so the IRS scandal will have legs.  But no reporter will have any trouble understanding the First Amendment threats posed by the Justice Department skimming reporters’ phone records.
  2. IRS vs. Tea Party Groups – Political players wielding government power against their enemies is easy to understand, and makes for a simple story to write.
  3. Benghazi – Really, what’s the worst part?  The administration’s keystone response to the embassy attack?  The lies about what caused the attack?  The fact that it looks like the President and his underlings were less than forthcoming due to the impending election?  This is pretty complex – for scandals looking to catch on, complex is bad.
  4. Gosnell – During the election cycle, progressive groups tried (largely successfully) to reframe the abortion debate by talking about narrow hypotheticals.  From the White House’s perspective, the silver lining of the week’s tri-scandals is that it takes mainstream attention away from the Gosnell verdict.  It will help motivate pro-life advocates, but its broader messaging implications will be muted.
  5. Obamacare – Small business owners are already feeling the pinch.  Kathleen Sebelius has been doing her “Secretary BoJangles” routine trying to fund advertising and encourage signups (like it’s some kind of high school club).

(If I missed anything, or if you disagree, leave a comment or yell at me on Twitter.)

Benghazi and Cultural Stickyness

Today the Washington Post pointed out analytics that showed interest in the Benghazi hearings was largely older, whiter men.  That may have a bit to do with the demographics of people working inside the Beltway who would be most likely to tune in, but it won’t be the final determination of whether this scandal has legs.

One of the reasons Watergate remains so ubiquitous in American political is that its unique moniker has kept it alive.  When political scandals erupt, the suffix “-gate” is immediately added.  No one references the Teapot Dome scandal that way.

Linguistically, the Benghazi scandal has that potential.  Too many lavish, taxpayer-financed vacations for the President?  Travelghazi.  Donors receiving special access to the President in exchange for campaign cash?  Sounds like a “Donorghazi” program.  And you can throw in Cubaghazi for that one couple that raised a bunch of money for the President and then magically got to go to a country that normal schlubs aren’t allowed to go to.)

It won’t be testimony in a stuffy hearing room that gives the administration’s misdirection gravity beyond the  halls of Congress.

A little bit Souder now…

It’s one thing to promote abstinence education, but it’s another thing to provide an example of why abstinence, sometimes, is the best policy.

Disgraced now-former Congressman Mark Souder is not only the most unlikely participant in a sex scandal (barring a late joint Arlen Specter announcement), but he conducted a video interview with the staffer he boinked about abstinence:

This, apparently, is what passes for a sex tape for Republicans – and that’s just fine.  Souder kind of looks like an early 90’s character actor – the type of person who’d play the neighbor in a short-lived sitcom.

Of course, today his bit role is as Richard Blumenthal’s best friend.