Damage Control

So in the last 24 hours, the White House has called for reporter shield legislation, released tons of internal emails relating to the Benghazi! “talking points,” and run off the acting director of the IRS. This will not, of course, cut much ice with congressional Republicans, much less the conservative commentariat, which is wallowing in the pure pleasure of impeachment fantasies. But it does overcome the impression, which a near-hysterical MSM cadre was broadcasting across the land, that the president was in some sort of Late Nixon mode, paralyzed and cringing in the White House.

In a Daily Beast post that will get attention for its aggressive counter-intuitiveness, Mike Tomasky applauds all three efforts, but favors a fourth: firing Eric Holder. And he’s ready to duke it out with those damage-control practitioners who think it’s always a mistake to make any concessions that will encourage one’s opposition and media perpetrators:

The Benghazi example highlights the key error, I believe, of the damage-control mentality: the conviction that scandals are a zero-sum competition; that if your side is losing, the other side is winning. That’s certainly true inside the Beltway. But it isn’t true at all outside of it, because most people, not being intense partisans, just don’t see politics that way. Most people don’t think, “Oh, my, Obama didn’t protect that consulate in Benghazi, so Rush Limbaugh must be right, I’m voting for Romney.” Most people don’t think that just because Obama screwed something up, the Republicans could do it better.

Obama may want to keep Holder because he thinks he’s a fine attorney general, and if that’s the case, well, then I guess it’s the case. But if he thinks this scandal is bad and Holder’s response is lame, he should cut him loose, and the sooner the better. I dispute in the strongest possible terms the mentality that says, “But that would just be giving the GOP a scalp.” No. It would be showing the American people, most of whom don’t think in terms of scalps, that some things cross your own moral line. It invests you with character.

The Republicans are going to do what they’re going to do. On these matters in particular, they’re Pavlovian cavemen. The way to beat them is not to forestall or worry about who scored points today. It’s to make a case to the broader public through actions—and timely actions, not actions taken only after great delay so it looks as if they were forced on you—that you are in charge and trying to run an honest shop. Hemming and hawing is the true aid and comfort.

I generally agree, and would add that quickly moving to fix the problems that led to a screwup will go a long way towards making it clear the opposition wants things to be screwed up perpetually so it won’t have to address the actual challenges facing the country. That’s why it would be a very good idea for the administration to quickly call for a legislative overhaul of the entire (c)(3) and (c)(4) system of nonprofits, to largely eliminate the IRS discretion that got the agency into trouble. I suspect the Republican Party, which benefits massively and disproportionately from the status quo, might cool its collective jets a bit about the need for perpetual investigations on this subject.

In any event, the White House would be foolish to sit back and hope the “scandals” will burn themselves out, or that the public will soon get bored with a daily news fare of Benghazi! and IRS and AP. If there are measures that everyone knows will ultimately have to be taken, then they should be taken now. If the idea is that Republicans should be allowed to overreach and show the country once again how little they care about the economy or any other real issue, then don’t worry: they’ll live down to their reputation again.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.