The Convenience of Political Scandal

As the media and politicians explore three stories — Benghazi, the IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the DOJ’s seizure of AP phone records — Ryan Lizza points out something very important, that these scandals really only have two results: a media feeding frenzy and convenient political posturing. Actual solutions have no part to play in this well-worn drama:

There is a great deal still to learn about all three cases. But, contrary to much of the reporting and punditry, my sense is that Tuesday saw the peak of scandal-mania for a while. We learned that the most dramatic Benghazi revelation is not as incriminating as advertised, and that the actions of the I.R.S. appear to be confined to that agency. For what it’s worth, as a journalist, I do find the A.P. subpoenas by far the most troubling of these three cases. (Lynn Oberlander, The New Yorker’s general counsel, lays out some of the reasons why.)

Both the political press corps and the Republican opposition are, not unreasonably, preoccupied with the White House’s role in major events, and coverage of these three scandals will rise and fall depending on the level of White House involvement, which so far ranges from modest to nonexistent.

The larger problem with the scandal culture in D.C. is that, because each example of government wrongdoing quickly morphs into a partisan effort to attack the White House (the same was true when a Republican was President), the actual remedies for the problems uncovered become almost beside the point. A U.S. congressman will probably go farther in his party hierarchy by roughing up Obama than he will by helping to pass legislation to ensure that all diplomatic posts have adequate security. Likewise, the I.R.S. abuses suggest the need for both major tax reform and changes to campaign-finance laws, while a future dragnet of news media phone records could be prevented if a strong federal shield law were in place. Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of these policy changes.

In all three cases, there are legitimate questions of wrongdoing. Why was the consulate in Benghazi apparently denied a request for additional security in what was clearly a dangerous environment? Who is responsible for that decision? Why were conservative groups targeted for additional questioning when applying for 501(c)(4) status? Who authorized this, who knew about it and why was it allowed to continue? Those seem to have largely been answered by the Inspector General’s report.

And I agree with Lizza that the seizure of phone records from AP reporters is the worst of the three, both because it was so incredibly broad and because it implicates a much larger problem of destroying transparency by intimidating reporters and prosecuting whistleblowers, all while intentionally leaking all sorts of information themselves, including classified information, for political purposes.

But here’s the thing: None of those problems are actually going to be addressed. The media only seems to care about the “scandal” aspects of those stories, not in discussing the larger problems that need to be solved (Chris Hayes has been a refreshing counter example). And the Republicans only care about hurting President Obama politically, with no thought at all to how to prevent abuses of power. It shows Washington culture at its worst in nearly every respect.

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  • machintelligence

    Why was the consulate in Benghazi apparently denied a request for additional security in what was clearly a dangerous environment? Who is responsible for that decision?

    Actually it seems that there were two offers of additional security, both turned down by the ambassador.

    Instead, after reading the Aug. 16 cable, Ham phoned Stevens and asked if the embassy needed a special security team from the U.S. military. Stevens told Ham it did not, the officials said.

    Weeks later, Stevens traveled to Germany for an already scheduled meeting with Ham at AFRICOM headquarters. During that meeting, Ham again offered additional military assets, and Stevens again said no, the two officials said.

    “He didn’t say why. He just turned it down,” a defense official who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject told McClatchy.

    Curiouser and curiouser.

  • CSB

    I was under the impression, although I could be wrong on this, that all of the security requests were for the embassy in Tripoli and not the consulate in Benghazi (which is about 630 miles from Tripoli if Google is telling me the truth).

  • CSB

    Actually, looks like it’s 630 miles by road. The flight distance is 416 miles. Still a good bit of distance, just not quite as much.

  • jamessweet

    The root issues behind the phone record subpoena are especially not going to be addressed, since there is broad bipartisan support for stomping all over a free press.

  • The most disturbing part about the AP phone records story is that everything the DOJ did was probably perfectly legal.

    That’s the part that needs to be address and probably won’t be.

  • lofgren

    The difference between the AP phone records and the others is that the AP phone record “scandal” directly targets the press, and that means they have a vested interest in whipping up anger over it. Whether or not anything gets done will depend on whether the public trusts the press or politicians more, and whether it’s profitable enough to the press to sustain interest in this story.