Republicans Are Watching Their Rhetoric on Obama Scandals

Michael Catalini

Wary of being perceived as overly partisan, Republican leaders are displaying unexpected message discipline about the trio of scandals facing the Obama administration, with rank-and-file members hesitant to conclude anything before Congressional investigations begin.

GOP leaders fanned out over the Sunday talk shows, avoiding strident accusations and casting their oversight as part of any reasonable investigation.

"The investigation has just begun. So I'm not going to reach a conclusion about what we may find," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday on Meet the Press.

"I agree with those that say let's calm down. Let's be deliberate. Let's be methodical," said Minority Whip John Cornyn on CBS' Face the Nation. "Let's be thorough, and get to the bottom of all of these scandals so the American people can know exactly what happened."

Republican lawmakers and strategists said the responses show that members are fully aware of the GOP's history of overreaching in response to Democratic controversies, and are pursuing a more cautious approach this time.

"The danger of getting ahead of the facts is you look ill informed. Potentially you look stupid if you don't know what you're talking about," said one Republican member of Congress. "Stick with the facts. That's the best policy thing to do, the best oversight thing to do—and the best thing to do in terms of the politics."

The careful Republican messaging comes as the White House is trying to portray Republicans as initiating investigations primarily for political gain. On "Meet the Press," White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said: "Some Republicans here are desperately looking to make political hay."

But there's evidence that the GOP's discipline has paid off. A newly-released CNN/ORC poll showed that 54 percent of Americans think the party reacted appropriately to the IRS scandal, and 59 percent said they believe the party reacted appropriately to the Benghazi attack.

"I think Democrats want Republicans to rush to judgment so they can say, 'Aha, they're rushing to judgment!" the GOP congressman said.

To be sure, there have been several isolated examples of rhetorical overreach. Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King wrote in an op-ed in U.S. News and World Report on Friday that the administration's handling of Benghazi amounted to a "cover-up" that "surpasses Watergate." Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota accused the White House of "blatantly lying" to the public.  Texas Rep. Steve Stockman compared the attacks in Benghazi to the Watergate scandal.

Those reactions threaten to undermine the GOP's efforts to capitalize politically on the controversies, say GOP strategists.

"It's important to take a long view of things like this and not immediately take the bait and turn it into an overnight political circus," said Brian Walsh, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman. "The important thing to remember is that you're speaking to independents. That's who we lost in 2012. Your base is automatically, rightfully outraged."