Why the IRS Scandal May Be More Politically Potent Than Benghazi

Scandals for the Obama administration offer political opportunities for Republicans. But while GOP strategists acknowledge it’s tempting to use continued questions over Benghazi as fodder for attack ads or fundraising, many are arguing it's not effective politics.

That hasn’t stopped Republican groups from seeking to capitalize politically off the Benghazi investigation. Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads put out a Benghazi ad focusing on Hillary Rodham Clinton, which ran Sunday during Face the Nation. The Republican National Committee released a Benghazi Web ad this week, followed up by an ad that also mentioned the seizure of AP journalists’ phone records and the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups. The National Republican Congressional Committee has been fundraising off of Benghazi.

Despite such messaging, top operatives say the Benghazi scandal is a tougher political sell to voters. GOP strategist Rick Wilson said Republicans need to be unyielding in investigating what happened in Benghazi, but it’s wise to pull back on the political ads for now---“and you’re talking to a guy who makes ads for a living.”

“This is an administration that is in deep, deep crisis mode right this moment,” Wilson said. “They are in absolutely terrible shape, and the only thing we could do for them is to throw them a life preserver, go on TV with some cheesy ad, and look stupid. This presents an opportunity for them to paralyze themselves with their own mistake.”

Conservative commentator Bill Kristol criticized using any of the scandals for fundraising or attacking Clinton. “It’s a genuine outrage what happened in Benghazi; it’s a genuine outrage what the IRS did,” he said last week on Fox News Sunday. “I wish the Republicans would just be quiet for a while—I mean, the partisan Republican groups that are fundraising off of this—would be quiet on both issues for a while, and let’s find out what really happened.”

Other GOP strategists acknowledge that this sort of political activity is inevitably going to happen. “The political committees are going to be political. They’re going to use every single angle,” said GOP strategist and former Mitt Romney campaign adviser Kevin Madden.

Democrats allege criticism over Obama on Benghazi is politically motivated; Obama accused Republicans this week of using such attacks for fundraising.

Meanwhile, few people are following news on the scandal. Less than half of Americans paid much attention to last week’s Benghazi hearings, “virtually unchanged from late January when Hillary Clinton testified,” according to the Pew Research Center's latest findings. This, despite extensive media coverage in the days leading up to the hearing.

Benghazi involves a very complex story line that is challenging to communicate in a 30-second television spot. Many Americans can’t even place Benghazi on a map.

In contrast, the malfeasance at the IRS was revealed more recently and has greater political resonance. Many Americans already dislike the IRS. The issue also mobilizes the conservative base while also turning off moderate Americans.

“It aligns itself with a lot of the concerns that the voting public--that means everyone, Republicans, Democrats, independents--have with what’s wrong with Washington,” said Madden.

Unlike Benghazi, which hasn't drawn outrage among Democrats on the Hill, the IRS scandal has attracted wide bipartisan criticism. Veteran Republican strategist Terry Holt said it also “validates what conservatives and Republicans have been saying about the administration. It’s not just a tool to attack Obama; it is a validation of an accusation that has been made in the past and it’s proving to be true.”

Republican operatives argued the most effective tone to take on for all of these scandals is one that’s focused on pursuing the facts and avoiding grandstanding: “If they’re smart about it, they will recognize good policy is great politics,” Wilson said. “This is great politics, but it doesn’t have to be over-the-top showmanship.”

Rather than trying to talk up Obama’s political motivations within all of three stories, GOP media strategist Brad Todd said the best course of action for Republicans is to “pursue the facts relentlessly and dispassionately, and keep the focus on the president’s constitutional obligations.”

“There is no need for spin on any of these scandals,” Todd said. “These situations are so grave that the facts are enough to do in the president, even if Republicans manage to screw it up -- which I hope we won’t.”

And for Republicans to fully capitalize off of these scandals, GOP strategists argue they need to do more than just express outrage and be active in proposing and implementing solutions.

“You walk a fine line. People want to hear what you have to say, but they also want you to respect the tone and to take it seriously,” Holt said. “If it’s just a blunt political weapon to beat you opponent over the head with, it has some value, but the long-term need for most voters is that you fix the problem, that you protect them from what happened to the other guy.”

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