Will the Benghazi and IRS Probes Do More Damage to Obama or the GOP?

Jill Lawrence

Barack Obama put himself on the road to winning the 2008 Iowa caucuses, the Democratic nomination, and the presidency by raising the specter of Clinton-era investigations, polarization, and bitterness. Now he’s facing the same thing, with overlays of gridlock, dysfunction, soaring deficits, mass unemployment, and ideological cable networks. Are he and his party doomed, or are Republicans overplaying their hand?

Talk of impeachment is in the air. It was striking that, asked point blank Sunday on ABC whether Obama should be impeached over Benghazi, Sen. John McCain did not say no. Instead he said he wanted a select committee to investigate the terrorist attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11, 2012. He can rest assured that even if there’s no select committee, there will be multiple investigations led by Republicans.

A December investigation by retired Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who served Republican and Democratic presidents for four decades, was unsparing about State Department errors and shortcomings. The major GOP problem with it appears to be that it spared Hillary Rodham Clinton, the 2016 presidential front-runner if she decides to run.

The latest news on the Internal Revenue Service is different in that it has united rather than divided partisans from the left to the right. For liberals, it’s all too easy to imagine the IRS targeting for special scrutiny groups with the words “99 percent” or “occupy” or “progressive” in their names, rather than “tea party” or “patriot.” And the belated IRS apology means little, as does the fact that the groups on the whole received the tax-exempt status they requested and--as Obama adviser David Plouffe pointed out--hugely outspent Democrats in the 2012 campaign.

The bottom line was well phrased by George W. Bush's former press secretary, Ari Fleischer, in Twitter shorthand. “It doesn't matter if Tparty non-profit applications got approved. Because of their views, they had more legal costs & trouble”, Fleischer tweeted Sunday night. But he also had this to say to his party: “Advice to GOP on Benghazi/IRS. Investigate facts--don't leap to conclusions (crime, impeachment). Let facts drive-not emotion.”

Ed Rogers, another Republican Party elder, also urged caution. He wrote in The Washington Post that he just doesn’t get the GOP “micro-obsession” with Benghazi. “It is powered by some self-replenishing fuel that I don’t see. And politically, it has reached a point of diminishing return for Republicans. No less than five GOP-led committees are looking into this. We shouldn’t be doing nothing, but isn’t this overkill when voters have other priorities, like the economy?” Rogers asked. His take on the politically tinged evolution of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s highly misleading Sunday-show talking points right after the incident: It happens all the time, in every agency, in every administration.

Nobody would accuse pollster Scott Rasmussen of a liberal tilt; in fact, his polls are often criticized for the opposite. But he, too, is wondering why Republicans feel they have a political winner on their hands with Benghazi. The public gives Obama better marks on foreign policy than on domestic policy, he writes, and it would take “some pretty spectacular revelations” to change that.

It is possible, of course, that the administration will sustain damage from investigations of what Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, on CNN called the “absolutely chilling” actions of the IRS and how it has handled the aftermath--clumsy apology rushed out just ahead of a tough inspector-general report, complete with a timeline that calls into question statements about “low-level” employees being the only ones who knew what was going on.

It won’t matter that Democrats and Republicans alike are condemning the agency, or that it was led at the time by a Bush-era appointee. Already Obama’s name is being mentioned in the same sentence as Richard Nixon, who tried to get the IRS to audit people on his famous “enemies list.” That charge, conservative Ed Morrissey at HotAir.com reminds us, was one of the articles of impeachment against Nixon.

The Clinton era was exhausting. Some fringe conservatives were convinced that the Clintons were involved in a drug murder in Arkansas and also had killed their good friend Vincent Foster, who in real life, had tragically committed suicide. The Clintons were investigated endlessly over Whitewater, a real-estate investment that yielded them no money, and special prosecutor Ken Starr then used his office to explore Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes. That led to Monica Lewinsky, her stained blue dress, impeachment, and Hillary Clinton’s anger at what she called the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

While the economy and Bill Clinton’s approval ratings were good, the daily diet of scandal was wearing on the public. This Clinton fatigue was what Obama was trying to summon in a December 2007 speech laying out why his party should nominate him instead of Hillary Clinton. “We can't afford to settle for the same old politics,” he told thousands of Democrats at a Des Moines, Iowa, arena. “The real gamble in this election is playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expecting a different result.… It is time to turn the page.”

Unlike Bill Clinton, Obama isn’t handing ammunition to Republicans in the form of self-created personal scandals. And yet he is presiding over a conflict-ridden era that is, if anything, even more wearying and exasperating than the Clinton era. The GOP is blocking his judges and Cabinet secretaries, attacking his budget proposals as both too austere and not austere enough, trying to withhold money for a smooth transition to the new health care law, and threatening again to ignore the debt limit and the perils of default. Now add multiple investigations of the IRS and Benghazi, some warranted and some excessive. Where will it all lead?

Shortly after the September 1998 release of the Starr report (with its graphic sexual references and 11 proposed articles of impeachment), and before they went on to impeach and try Clinton, Republicans contradicted historical patterns by losing House seats. The public, it turned out, was tired of scandal, investigations, and conflict. Obama can only hope the same dynamic plays out in 2014.