candals large and small are a remarkably common, if unwelcome, house guest for second-term presidents. But President Obama may not prove to be the only one hurt by the eruption of controversies around the Benghazi attack, the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups, and the Justice Department’s seizure of Associated Press phone records.
In modern times, scandals have routinely afflicted presidential second terms, either because of arrogance, inattention, or the sheer weight of probability: The government is a very big institution, and the longer you control it, the greater the odds that someone somewhere does something stupid. The list of recent presidents facing post-reelection travails extends from Dwight Eisenhower (a gift scandal that claimed his chief of staff), Ronald Reagan (Iran-Contra), George W. Bush (“Plame-gate”), Bill Clinton (impeachment over Monica Lewinsky) and, of course, Richard Nixon, who resigned amid Watergate.
Pending future revelations, the impact of Obama’s difficulties with Benghazi, the IRS, and AP seems pointed toward the less momentous end of that range. That trajectory looks most assured on Benghazi, where the sharpest questions have centered on whether the administration airbrushed its talking points. That may be disappointing behavior, but it probably won’t enrage many Americans beyond those who already dislike Obama.
The IRS investigation is the most volatile. Any targeting of political groups for special tax scrutiny justifiably inflames Americans’ suspicions. Obama’s defenses are strengthened by the indication in this week’s inspector-general report that mid-level IRS managers attempted to broaden the scrutiny beyond conservative organizations to the legitimate issue of whether left and right political groups were misusing their tax-exempt status. But Obama will be hurt—badly—if further investigation finds that administration officials beyond the IRS encouraged politically targeted enforcement.
Examining such questions is a necessary congressional function. But in our polarized era, oversight often becomes a partisan cudgel. And that process, which is already infecting the Benghazi inquiry, could bruise not only Obama but the Republicans driving the investigations as well.
These confrontations’ most predictable effect will be to enrage the GOP base, which will strengthen the party factions most dubious about any compromises with Obama. In that way, these storms will likely weaken not only the president but also Republicans who believe the party must reboot to restore its competitiveness for the White House. “The base of the party is going to go ballistic on this, particularly the IRS [issue],” says Tom Davis, the former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “It makes it harder for [GOP legislators] to go along with Obama on things in general.”
The Clinton impeachment captures the dynamic. After voters returned Clinton and GOP House and Senate majorities in 1996, the two sides reached a sweeping balanced-budget deal in 1997. As historian Steven M. Gillon recounted in his eye-opening 2008 book, The Pact, Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich privately envisioned centrist follow-on agreements that included a major Social Security reform plan. But with many conservatives already bridling at the budget deal, the impeachment push made further compromise untenable for either side. Congressional Republicans faced insurmountable pressure from the right not to provide accomplishments that could fortify a president they considered illegitimate, and Clinton could not risk angering liberals he needed to defend him from impeachment by making policy deals with Gingrich. Impeachment destroyed “any possibility of them moving to the center,” says Gillon, now at the University of Oklahoma.
A drumbeat of congressional hearings on the IRS and Benghazi, whatever they reveal, could easily reproduce that progression. Like Clinton, Obama may feel constrained about reaching agreements with Republicans (on entitlements for instance) that anger liberals if he needs their support against GOP investigations.
Republicans may feel greater effects. Even before these disclosures, congressional Republicans had dramatically escalated their resistance to Obama’s second term. While the House is voting yet again this week to repeal the president’s health care law, Senate Republicans have blocked consideration of Obama’s nominees for Labor secretary and Environmental Protection Agency administrator. As in Clinton’s era, the approaching cycle of investigation, media leak, and hearing-room confrontation over the IRS and Benghazi will deepen a sense of unstinting partisan conflict that will further narrow the space for serious legislative negotiations.
Davis, now director of federal affairs at the Deloitte consulting firm, says one critical difference from the Clinton years is that many GOP leaders still consider deals with Obama on immigration and the debt ceiling to be in the party’s self-interest. But to the extent Republicans believe scandal is bloodying Obama (and thus Democrats for 2014 and 2016), party leaders will face greater pressure not to buttress him with any policy agreements. “This makes it far more challenging for someone … who wants to do deals with a president who is just despised by the base,” says Gillon.
If these investigations ultimately impede deal-making on issues such as immigration, they will imperil Obama’s desire for a legislative legacy and stunt his second term. Yet such a breakdown would also endanger the GOP’s need to expand its unsustainably narrow electoral coalition. Republicans could find that stoking the flames of scandal may sear not only Obama’s hopes but also their own.
This article appears in the May 18, 2013, edition of National Journal as Playing With Fire.