Marc Ambinder

A guide to D.C. for the terminologically impaired

By ABC's definition a scandal is a television show that outdoes itself from week-to-week, and must involve at least one duplicitous betrayal and monumental, earth-shattering cover-up per week, if not per act. 

I think actual Washington suffers from Scandal envy.

On television, Fitz has an affair with his long-time image-maker, the White House chief of staff murders someone, and the mole is... well, I won't spoil it. (Actually, the real scandal in the show is how the chief of staff's boyfriend got his White House correspondent's job in the first place, but I'm just vamping).

In reality, we have Benghazi, the IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the Justice Department's aggressive investigation into a national security leak.

One of those comports roughly with the dictionary definition of a small-s-scandal. The word itself has a religious connotation; it is most accurately used to describe a situation that brings public disgrace to a religion or a religious person. But if politics is our secular religion, then we can define a scandal as a series of events that discredit or delegitimize our politics or specific politicians. Usually, these events are dubious and initially hidden, deliberately so, in order to avoid shame. 

Benghazi is not a scandal. It is a tragedy. The Justice Department's investigation is big, public, and scary. It is an assertion of executive power. It is not a scandal. 

These events are categorically different. They cross each other only temporally; they occurred during the Obama administration. 

To call all three "scandals," and to create, to manufacture, a scandalfog machine and set it in the direction of the White House is to either deliberately ignore the facts underlying these three events or to eagerly make imaginative leaps in order to create the narrative of a scandal-plagued White House without any real plot points.  

When the Internal Revenue Service targets political groups in a way that reflects a prima facie political judgment that a certain type of group will more likely be found to have violated the law, that's a scandal. Maybe it is limited to two rogue employees in Cincinnati. But those employees had supervisors who looked the other way, or who didn't supervise at all. It does not matter that the entire notion of social welfare organizations is a fiction; indeed, it's scandalous when these charities don't have lawyers who can figure out how to let them evade the plain language of the law and push them into political advocacy.

That is a scandal, too, but it's one we're comfortable enough with to ignore.  The actions of the IRS bring discredit to the IRS, and to the government, and to the mechanisms in place to prevent overtly political enforcement decisions.  We may learn that the IRS took shortcuts that also targeted liberal groups. We may yet learn that, although I doubt this, that someone in the White House ordered the IRS to act this way, or sent signals suggesting that procedural norms be overlooked. Good journalism and oversight will help us answer these questions.

Benghazi? It has an element of unseemly bureaucratic self-protection. The State Department understandably didn't want to take the fall for not following non-specific warnings about security at consulates. During a time of confusion, the White House wanted to make sure that the FBI, the Justice Department, the CIA, the Director of National Intelligence, the State Department and their associated legal entities were speaking as one. Coordinating talking points almost always reduces them to the point of providing no information whatsoever.

The e-mails released today put to rest the idea that the White House was primarily or even secondarily concerned about the political repercussions of associating an Al Qaeda-linked group with Benghazi because it would cast as a lie President Obama's claim to have defeated core al Qaeda. Maybe there are other e-mails, but there is still nothing — nothing, not a thing — that rises to the level of a scandal. Could Hillary Clinton have better managed the State Department to ensure that hot spots had more security and could the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have adjusted troop deployments to ensure that a rapid reaction force was within an hour's travel time of any big CIA or State facility? These are questions that the media actually has been asking since Benghazi; these questions are appropriate to ask; the ARB panel answered some of them; others we can't know because we can't go back and play chess with history. (Should the Republicans have insisted on cuts to diplomatic security a year earlier? Hey, it's chess.) 

The Justice Department's leak investigation? Here we have the government bearing down hard on reporters. That sucks. I don't like it. I am glad The Associated Press is fighting it. It angers me. But it's not a scandal. It's a policy decision — a public one.  

Maybe a policy is a scandal, but then, by all means, debate the policy. 

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