Republicans Could Have Room to Run on Scandal-Mongering

Darrell Issa should feel free to make all the unfounded accusations he wants.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The headline from today’s NBC/WSJ poll confirms previous surveys showing that Barack Obama’s approval ratings have yet to suffer from a trio of micro-scandals. Obama has a net-positive 48-47 approval rating in the new poll, which is a 2-point improvement from the poll’s last version two months ago.

The key issue here is that Americans are not yet blaming Obama for the State Department’s handling of Benghazi, the Justice Department’s monitoring of journalist phone records, or the IRS’ targeting of Tea Party groups.

On the final question, just 33 percent of Americans think Obama had a hand in the IRS scandal, which has become the principal (and yet-to-be proven) allegation hinted at by some top Republicans, including House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa.

The GOP’s chief prosecutor has taken hits in the last few days from Robert Gibbs, David Plouffe, David Axelrod, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, and fellow Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham for his overzealousness in calling White House spokesman Jay Carney a “paid liar” and implying (again, without evidence) that the administration ordered the IRS to go after Tea Party groups.

But as the National Journal reported this morning, top House Republicans have responded to the episode not by chastising Issa, but by encouraging him. This might not be such a bad tactic.

Last month Jonathan Chait argued that Republicans should “let their freak flag fly” in their prosecution of these Obama scandals, rather than taking a slow, cautious path in letting the facts speak for themselves. The idea behind this approach is that the facts might not actually prove any wrongdoing, but a steady drumbeat of scandal-mongering will at least keep the stories in the news and slowly erode at the public trust in Obama without necessarily doing much damage to the GOP brand.

The NBC/WSJ poll offers two numbers that support this theory.*

First, strong majorities of respondents said that each of the three scandals raised doubts about the integrity and honesty of the Obama administration. (This sentiment is echoed by a Bloomberg poll from yesterday that said 47 percent of Americans don’t believe Obama is telling the truth about his lack of prior knowledge of the IRS’ anti-Tea Party activities.) Secondly, 50 percent of Americans view the Republican inquiries as justified, compared with just 42 percent who see them as partisan attacks.

This means that in spite of loose bits of impeachment talk here and there, voters see the investigations as being conducted responsibly so far. Not only that, the accusations are making a dent in the public trust of the Obama administration without incurring a backlash. Negative impressions of the Republican Party are actually down 5 points since February, from 46 percent saying they had negative feelings about the GOP to 41 percent.

Without said backlash, Republicans have all the motivation in the world to make attacks on Obama even more incendiary, whether or not the evidence is there.

*Correction, June 5, 2013: This sentence originally misidentified the NBC/WSJ poll as an MSNBC poll.