Somewhere Richard Nixon is smiling. Four decades after Watergate and two decades after his death, we still can’t stop talking about the dark anti-hero of American politics. His five-o’clock shadowy visage remains too convenient a metaphor for lazy critics looking to lacerate a president from the opposing party.
The latest non-Watergate to be labelled its second coming is actually a combination of three separate scandals afflicting the Barack Obama administration.
The collective weight of this scandalabra threatens to derail the president’s ambitious legislative agenda, dragging him to premature lame duck status. But it doesn’t represent outright criminality emanating from the Oval Office or promise to provoke a constitutional crisis, however fervently Obama’s critics might wish it.
In fact the ritualistic invocation has the opposite to the desired effect, making the scandals look smaller than they are by comparison with Nixon’s. So, partisan projections aside, how do these scandals really stack up?
The IRS scandal is the most serious, and the most likely to bring back a genuine whiff of Tricky Dick. In this case, IRS workers were filtering a wave of applications for tax-exempt status by political organisations during the run-up to the 2012 election – casting an unacceptable and possibly illegal eye towards whether they had the phrases like “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their name. While none of the conservative applicants were ultimately denied tax-exempt status, the intrusive inquiries delayed their advocacy and cast a chill on the political process.
After the scandal broke last week, President Obama denounced the actions as “outrageous” and fired the acting IRS director along with a top deputy.
Congressional hearings will help determine how widespread this blatantly biased practice was, but the initial investigation report found no orders coming from outside the agency. New regulations need to be put in place to ensure this abuse cannot happen again while also ensuring that explosive growth of partisan groups pretending to be non-partisan non-profits is properly policed.
More people should be fired to show zero tolerance for this bureaucratic bullying tactic. But it’s a long way from Nixon (like LBJ before him) ordering the IRS to audit individuals on his political enemies list.
The second scandal came when the Associated Press was told by the Justice Department that reporters’ phone records had been secretly subpoenaed as part of an investigation into a leak concerning national security, most likely related to a story that compromised a field agent’s identity.
All of a sudden privacy issues and concerns over the excesses of the Patriot Act became personal to the press corps and they reacted with understandable outrage in a series of brutal press conferences.
Here too Republicans invoked Nixon against Obama. But ironically it was Republicans who had first called for the leak investigation, during the presidential campaign.
On the surface, this new version of the old struggle between freedom and security might recall Nixon-era fights over the Pentagon Papers. But the ugliness of this particular inquiry is really a reminder of how far technology has outpaced our laws, putting privacy under assault for individuals and the press.
The administration again took up the passage of a media shield law as part of its public penance. We’ll see whether the bipartisan outrage over this unethical but unfortunately legal investigation translates into votes in Congress.
Finally, there is the continuing inquiry into the killing of four Americans in Benghazi. After damning congressional testimony from former deputy chief Libya diplomat Greg Hicks, the White House belatedly released a barrage of emails – which showed that the editing of the now-infamous “talking points” used by officials in television interviews was largely the product of a bureaucratic turf war between the CIA and the State Department.
This cast cold water on conservative conspiracy theorists, but Karl Rove’s group American Crossroads has still launched online advertisements about Benghazi which seem to be aimed more at stopping a 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign than at expressing genuine moral outrage.
Facts are the best way to stop a feeding frenzy and the Obama administration finally seems to be taking these scandals seriously. The breaches of public trust not only threaten the bipartisan votes necessary to pass key second term legislation like immigration reform, they undercut the president’s ability to make his larger legacy case that progressive governance can be efficient and effective.
The inquiries will continue, but we already see how reflexive partisan projections distort and discredit the search for truth. That is only compounded by the impulse to impose old narratives about “Nixon” and “Watergate” on current events. These scandals can stand on their own.