Time’s Ripe For a Scandal “Co-Production”

If you want a good understanding of why the Obama administration now seems mired in scandal politics after avoiding that common fate for so very long, check out Brendan Nyhan’s explanation at Ten Miles Square today. Nyhan has pioneered political science work on the subject of presidential scandals, and isn’t surprised at all that this is happening at this particular moment:

My research suggests that the structural conditions are strongly favorable for a major media scandal to emerge. First, I found that new scandals are likely to emerge when the president is unpopular among opposition party identifiers. Obama’s approval ratings are quite low among Republicans (10-18% in recent Gallup surveys), which creates pressure on GOP leaders to pursue scandal allegations as well as audience demand for scandal coverage. Along those lines, John Boehner is reportedly “obsessed” with Benghazi and working closely with Darrell Issa, the House committee chair leading the investigation. You can expect even stronger pressure from the GOP base to pursue the IRS investigations given the explosive nature of the allegations and the way that they reinforce previous suspicions about Obama politicizing the federal government.

In addition, I found that media scandals are less likely to emerge as pressure from other news stories increases. Now that the Boston Marathon bombings have faded from the headlines, there are few major stories in the news, especially with gun control and immigration legislation stalled in Congress. The press is therefore likely to devote more resources and airtime/print to covering the IRS and Benghazi stories than they would in a more cluttered news environment.

Second terms, Nyhan also notes, are usually prime time for presidential scandals. Moreover, the emergence of yet another controversy, over the Justice Department’s apparent “sweep” of phone records for AP reporters, is especially ominous for the administration. Nyan’s original research described big presidential scandals as invariably involving a “co-production” by the opposition party and “elite political media.” Although the AP “scandal” is in no way related to Benghazi! or the IRS brouhaha, it could well help invest media in the overall atmosphere of scandal-mongering, all aimed at the administration.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.