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Will Republicans overplay the Obama scandals?
The Obama administration is having its worst political week yet, giving the GOP plenty of ammo
 
The GOP could use Obama's woes to its advantage — but the negativity could also turn off Americans.
The GOP could use Obama's woes to its advantage — but the negativity could also turn off Americans. Fang Zhe/Xinhua Press/Corbis

This week has been quite fruitful for President Obama's Republican critics. None of the current brouhahas — the House hearings on last September's fatal attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya; the targeting of conservative tax-exempt applicants by the IRS; or the Justice Department's broad subpoena of Associated Press phone records — have reached the White House yet, but that only gives Republicans more reason to keep digging.

With all that's been happening recently, it's starting to feel a lot like the 1990s — and not in a good way, says Jill Lawrence at National Journal. Obama is facing the specter of Bill Clinton–era levels of investigations, polarization, and bitterness — "with overlays of gridlock, dysfunction, soaring deficits, mass unemployment, and ideological cable networks" thrown in for good measure, Lawrence says. Talk of impeachment is even back in the air. But the '90s weren't great for Republicans. So the big question regarding Obama's second term is: "Are he and his party doomed, or are Republicans overplaying their hand?" Lawrence explains:

Unlike Bill Clinton, Obama isn't handing ammunition to Republicans in the form of self-created personal scandals. And yet he is presiding over a conflict-ridden era that is, if anything, even more wearying and exasperating than the Clinton era. The GOP is blocking his judges and Cabinet secretaries, attacking his budget proposals as both too austere and not austere enough, trying to withhold money for a smooth transition to the new health care law, and threatening again to ignore the debt limit and the perils of default. Now add multiple investigations of the IRS and Benghazi, some warranted and some excessive. Where will it all lead?

Shortly after the September 1998 release of the Starr report (with its graphic sexual references and 11 proposed articles of impeachment), and before they went on to impeach and try Clinton, Republicans contradicted historical patterns by losing House seats. The public, it turned out, was tired of scandal, investigations, and conflict. Obama can only hope the same dynamic plays out in 2014. [National Journal]

Some signs do point to the American people tiring of scandal: The Benghazi story, for one, isn't getting much traction with the public — a new Pew poll finds that just 44 percent of Americans are paying even modest attention to the GOP's Benghazi investigation, and those respondents are split along predictable partisan lines on how Obama has handled things; a new PPP poll, meanwhile, found that Americans trust former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Benghazi more than House Republicans by a 49 percent to 39 margin.

The other two scandals might be a different story. Either debacle by itself — at the AP and IRS — "would have caused a headache for the Obama administration," says Harry Enten at Britain's The Guardian, "but the two of them together could spell big trouble for the Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections." If it's big enough, a "scandal can negatively impact how much Americans trust" government, and that's bad news for Democrats, Enten says. "When trust in government falls, the party in the White House tends to do worse in midterm elections."

The thing to watch over the next days, weeks, and months is how big the scandals become. If they become big news, and that seems quite possible, Obama's Democratic party may be heading for major losses in 2014. [The Guardian]

And if those Democratic losses do materialize next year, and the GOP keeps control of the House and takes the Senate, "the question isn't 'will Republicans try to impeach Obama,' it's 'when will it happen?'" says Jamelle Bouie at The American Prospect. The IRS issue is troubling, though overblown, and it has "already joined Benghazi as part of the Republican Party's questionable case for corruption in the Obama administration," Bouie says. It doesn't matter if the public isn't behind the party's push against Obama, or that Americans might even punish the GOP for it. "The conservative base wants it, and as we've seen over the last four years, that's all it takes for the Republican Party to act," Bouie adds.

Impeachment proceedings did seem inevitable a few years ago, says Jonathan Bernstein at A Plain Blog About Politics. But now "I think the chances of a spurious impeachment are a lot lower than I thought, and a lot lower than a lot of liberal bloggers now think." There are two things Republicans could have learned from the 1998 Clinton impeachment: The 1998-99 lesson that "spurious impeachment helps the president and hurts the other party" or the 2000 one, "spurious impeachment, whatever the apparent immediate effect, helps the out-party eventually," Bernstein explains. House GOP leaders, who were around in 1998, learned the first, correct lesson.

More to the point, Bernstein says, "it's not entirely clear to me that actually moving towards impeachment does anything great for most House Republicans."

Scandal-mongering, obviously, is very lucrative within the conservative marketplace.... [But] actually finishing an impeachment presumably ends whatever scandal they are mongering. It might be better to just keep the witch-hunt going.... On balance I think the final word on this is likely to be John Boehner's demonstrated ability in guiding House Republicans past their worst self-destructive instincts. [Plain Blog]

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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