The White House Field Guide to Scandal

How the trio of Obama scandals could save immigration reform and the welfare state.

President Obama speaks at a Democratic Party fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

Is it really all dark for the Obama administration right now?

Photo by Jason Reed / Reuters

If you find yourself panicking about the thick cloud of scandal snaking around the Obama administration, don’t. Sen. John McCain has good news for you.

“When Iran–Contra was going on, President Reagan was still able to work with Congress,” said McCain to Capitol Hill reporters today. “Legislation was passed, et cetera.” That scandal captivated Washington and the world, and “everyone thought that it would damage President Reagan, but it didn’t.”

There, isn’t that soothing? Three stories, doing varying amounts of damage, may only add up to the same Richter scale score as the story that nearly destroyed the Reagan presidency. The invincible Republican investigation of Benghazi, the IRS’s early admission that it hassled Tea Party groups, two U.S. attorneys’ snooping into Associated Press phone records—it’s all being rolled together into a grand narrative of presidential crisis. In his weekly chat with reporters, Democratic House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer confused the IRS story and the AP story, answering one with his talking points for the other. He apologized. Then he did it again.

That, obviously, is not the way to handle this. Yes, the overall impression of crisis is affecting the mood of Congress. Many pundits are resurrecting the musty meme of the “Second Term Curse,” but that’s a little easy—any government in power gets weaker as it gets older. A better term is “Omnishambles,” a situation that looks “shambolic from every possible angle,” because the individual angles actually matter here. The three scandals are placing different amounts of pressure on different parts of the government—and in one case, on different parties. I’ve gone ahead and ranked them in ascending order of political devastation.

#Benghazi—It’s only really damaging to one party, personified by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and to an astonishing degree it hasn’t broken out of a partisan prism. Rasmussen Reports, a polling firm that fairly often bears good results for Republicans, found that voter outrage and awareness of the story (from the attack to the increasingly Pynchonesque story of administration talking points) didn’t change after last week’s hearings. Republicans keep asking for a special congressional committee to be formed and tackle the scandal. Democrats keep ignoring them.

That stasis, oddly enough, can help the administration inch toward one of its goals. Two of the co-sponsors of the Senate immigration bill, Lindsey Graham and John McCain, are two of the sharpest-speared Benghazi obsessives. The focus on one has a sort of matador effect, distracting angry conservatives from the other. I saw this firsthand in Arizona recently, when an audience at a McCain town hall alternated between angry immigration questions and angry Benghazi questions. “What has helped me back home is that people remember the Lindsey from impeachment, they remember the guy who was leading the charge on conservative caucuses,” Graham told Politico last week. “[Benghazi] and the second amendment stuff, that’s where I can throw a punch.”

“This hurts the Obama Administration more than similar issues hurt the Bush administration because a central underpinning of the progressive philosophy is a belief in the efficacy of government,” said Paul Begala, a former adviser to Bill Clinton. “Perhaps in some sort of bank-shot way it may give cover for some Republicans to work with him on immigration … but in the main almost all of the Obama agenda requires expanding folks’ faith in government, and these issues erode that faith.”

AP-aquiddick—Least damaging of the three, but with no upside, unless it’s used to build steam for a new shield law. Its origins lie in a different scandal, one that broke out when Republicans fretted that national security secrets were being leaked in a selective way that benefited Barack Obama’s re-election. The response, eventually, was an investigation outsourced from the Justice Department to two U.S. attorneys. That led to the secret subpoena of AP phone records, when federal regulations call for rather more transparency than that.

But the origins of the story matter. Republicans today, like South Dakota Sen. John Thune, were happy to snark about the “most transparent administration in history,” but they didn’t elucidate any problems with an investigation. McCain, to pick an example of someone who’d been critical of the leaks, didn’t weigh in on the “scandal” side of the story when reporters asked.

IRS-gate—This is a Wes Craven nightmare for Democrats, with no clue of when they might wake up. Just on Tuesday, a pugnacious Missouri reporter claimed that he’d been “hammered by the IRS,” Franklin (son of Billy) Graham said his charity had been hassled by the IRS, and the National Organization for Marriage announced it would sue to find out how its own documents got leaked. None of these stories had anything to do, directly, with the Tea Party story. The floodgates just opened for them.

Republicans are riding the waves, claiming that the IRS can no longer be trusted on a job they never wanted it to take. Which job? Why, enforcing the Affordable Care Act, what else?

“When people apply for the exchanges, and they send the information off on this application, it goes to the IRS and to Homeland Security and to Social Security,” said Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, a medical doctor who ranks fourth in the GOP’s leadership. “The IRS is asking for up to 15,000 more agents to enforce the individual mandate, which people don’t like, and to decide on tax credits. So when we see unequal application of the law under the IRS, I think that just brings another dark cloud over the entire health issue. I believe many people are not going to go to the exchanges. I believe it’s going to be a train wreck for a number of reasons, but I don’t think people are going to want to send information to the IRS when they hear about this abuse of power. People weren’t happy to send that information even before this!”

Democrats have fought the current, asking everyone to look at the reason the IRS was leaning so hard on the Tea Party. A series of Supreme Court decisions loosened the rules governing tax-exempt 501(c)(4) groups. Over the past decade, those groups grew into behemoths that used large untraceable donations to wage campaigns—sorry, to educate Americans—in the interest of social welfare. That, say Democrats, was the problem the IRS was grappling with, and wouldn’t it be better to just tighten the rules that created it? That was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s argument on Tuesday, as he mocked the idea of Karl Rove as a “social welfare” promoter. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden argued that the scandal should make skeptics look again at his Follow the Money Act, co-written with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

“These problems can take root in the absence of clear and enforceable rules,” said Wyden. “If you don’t have clear and enforceable rules, the bureaucracy makes it up as it goes along.”

If you want to push it, there’s one more possible liberal upside. The last time a Democratic president looked to be brought low by scandal was 1998. It was a brief economic golden age, a perfect time for entitlement reform. Republicans spent the year impeaching Bill Clinton for lying about a sexual act.

Progressives remember this moment with a strange fondness. Would-be compromisers remember it acidly. As she headed into meetings on Tuesday, Maine Sen. Susan Collins was talking to reporters about the possibility of a grand bargain on entitlement spending, something to replace sequestration cuts. I asked whether the new scandals would up-end that.

“I do not believe that the IRS scandal,” said Collins, “serious and troubling though it is, will forestall negotiations on the budget and immigration and other issues.”

That’s the spirit!