On Monday evening, The New York Times posted a story about Hillary Clinton's use of email as secretary of State that immediately had Republicans salivating and Democrats gulping. At the moment it's still unclear whether Clinton did anything wrong, let alone illegal, but it certainly brought back memories of the 1990s, when we were never without a Clinton scandal, or at least one Republicans were trying to drum up. It's also a reminder of the fundamentally different kind of scandal-mongering that has gone on for the last six years.
It isn't for lack of desire. Republicans have certainly tried to whip up scandal at Barack Obama whenever possible. But scandals are driven both by what an administration does and how its opponents choose to go after it.
No administration, particularly one that lasts two terms, is entirely without scandal. It seems impossible to bring thousands of people into positions of authority and not have human weakness express itself. But this administration has actually been remarkably free of major scandals. There has been nothing on the scale of Watergate or Iran-Contra, and the smaller controversies haven't implicated the president himself.
The most remarkable scandal may be the one that never happened: In its first year, the administration passed a $787 billion stimulus bill, and all the money was distributed without any news of stolen funds or sweetheart deals. And if today you rattled off the names of the supposed scandals that have come and gone — Solyndra, Fast and Furious, the IRS affair — the response of the Americans who are not avid Fox News viewers would range from "What was that supposed to be about again?" to "That didn't amount to much, did it?"
Take, for instance, the IRS. When the story broke, the administration's critics were sure it would reveal that the White House was using the tax agency to punish its opponents. But it turned out to be something less nefarious: A bunch of poorly trained employees were struggling to apply a vague law on what differentiates a political organization from a genuine charity, and when they were deluged with new tea party groups applying for charitable status, they gave some of their applications extra scrutiny, resulting in delays processing those applications. Problematic in some ways, but hardly a Nixonian conspiracy.
But then there's Benghazi. It's no accident that this is the Obama administration faux scandal that earned the undying obsession of Republicans. They have mounted one investigation after another, and failed again and again to uncover the sinister conspiracy that so many of them believed must be hidden somewhere. They're sure Benghazi involved a massive cover-up, but not only haven't they been able to find it, they can't even figure out what was supposed to be covered up. Faced with the fact that it was a terrible tragedy, and perhaps even preventable — but not a result of an administration that didn't care about Americans being killed or maybe even wanted them to be killed — they shake their heads and insist that they just have to keep digging.
So why, after all this time and all those investigations, is Benghazi still the vehicle of so many Republicans' hopes for taking Barack Obama down? Consider some recent poll results. Sixty-nine percent of Republicans believe Obama doesn't love America. Fifty-four percent of them think that "deep down" he's a Muslim, not a Christian. Throughout his presidency, majorities of Republicans have doubted whether he was actually born here. The average Republican thinks that the president is either literally a foreigner, or at best is just foreign and anti-American in his beliefs. So it shouldn't surprise us that an incident where Americans died in a Muslim land in a terrorist attack is the one they've always believed would lead to incontrovertible evidence of Obama's treachery.
The Clinton years were different, not because Republicans despised that Democratic president any less, but because of what they thought his particular sins were. They knew in their hearts that Bill Clinton was venal and duplicitous, and if you scratched any surface you'd find the corruption lurking within. But they didn't think he was betraying America, just that he was doing everything from running drugs to having his political enemies killed. There was no matter too trivial or ridiculous for them to investigate; it may have reached the height of absurdity when the Republican Congress heard 140 hours of testimony on whether the Clintons had misused the White House Christmas card list. And when he made for himself an actual sex scandal, all the resentments of the 1960s culture wars came gushing out, and at the end of it they were disgusted with a public that didn't share their moral condemnation.
By the time Clinton's administration was over, he did something that incensed Republicans more than all his previous sins put together: he got away with all of it, and in style. Impeachment failed, and the last Gallup poll of his term pegged his approval at a stunning 66 percent.
Barack Obama won't ever again get approval ratings that high, because of how polarization has intensified since then. But his term may well wind down without any of the mini or fake scandals of his presidency taking much of a toll. Should that happen, Republicans will insist that if they only had more time, and if only the media had paid more attention, and if only the public had its head screwed on right, then everything would have been different. But by then they'll be focused on Hillary Clinton, convinced that any day now they'll discover the scandal that will bring her down.