Is Scandalmania ’13 Over?

I know it’s been a week of real-world distractions, so it’s not terribly surprising that we’ve heard a lot less about the IRS “scandal” (other than new information that undermines the whole “scandal” framing), nothing much at all about Benghazi!, and what you might call cross-talk from various directions on the administration’s surveillance and “plumbing” policies.

But Jonathan Chait thinks something bigger is happening than distraction: he thinks Scandalmania ’13 is over:

Sifting through the Republican responses to President Obama’s climate speech Tuesday, an odd omission could be found — or, at least, it would have seemed odd as recently as a week or two ago. The various Republican statements churned out for the media dutifully denounced the president as a job-killing, coal-hating, stealth-taxing liberal. See Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Rand Paul, Orrin Hatch, the National Republican Senatorial Committee via spokesblogger Jennifer Rubin, and any others you care to Google on your own. The word that never appears in any of them is scandal. Not a one of them claimed Obama was attempting to distract America from his scandals.

It is not that Republicans have previously shied away from bringing “scandal” in to putatively unrelated Obama doings. The existence of a presidential “scandal” can be inferred when the opposition party — and both parties do this — attempts to tie the scandal to anything the president does or does not do. Republicans have previously defined as attempts to distract from the scandal such disparate Obama actions as nominating judges, proposing to reduce student loans, visiting the Jersey Shore, and defending the use of drones. That is to say, basically everything Obama has done since the dawn of the Obama scandal era about seven weeks ago. If the president can give a major speech without either the opposition or the new media accusing him of attempting to distract from the scandal, then the scandal is over.

Chait concedes there’s still gabbing going on about “scandals” on the Right, but not in any sort of purposeful and persuasive way:

To be sure, the Obama scandals live on in the conservative world, where the evidence of deep corruption and venality grows stronger and stronger. But that is merely the confirmation of suspicions of “Chicago politics,” ACORN and so on, that predate recent events and don’t require any particular facts to survive.

I have a couple of thoughts on this hypothesis. For one thing, the “momentum” of Scandalmania ’13 was thrown off by the NSA/Snowden saga, in which conservatives have themselves been deeply split, reflecting a very fundamental split over national security policy that’s a real problem for the conservative movement (and they know it).

For another thing, the rescission of the 2013 “scandals” (which in the case of Benghazi!, was just the continuation of a 2012 “scandal”) into supportive talking points for an overall “vetting” and “indictment” of Obama, has been the reigning idea on the Right all along. Perhaps MSM types got interested when multiple “stories” developed that all threatened the president’s job approval rating and created investigative journalism opportunities to look for real dirt. But all along, conservatives were determined to push public interest away from the details of this or that “scandal” and promote the broader “narrative” of an arrogant socialist political leader overstepping his boundaries. So in a way, the most avid promoters of “Scandalmania ’13” helped curtail its enduring strength.

Think about it. When conservatives from Erick Erickson to Karl Rove began promoting the Henry II Theory of Presidential Responsibility in trying to tie Obama to the IRS “scandal,” a lot of us figured they were cutting their losses and implementing a Plan B in the absence of any evidence directly linking the White House to alleged IRS targeting of conservative tax exemption applicants. An alternative interpretation is that conservatives actually prefer the scenario of a lordly Dictator rhetorically creating a climate of persecution against Tea Party activists, the Kochs, fossil-fuel companies, Christian evangelicals, and maybe even white people tout court, to any specific pattern of misbehavior on a limited front.

Keep in mind that many conservative gabbers treat the Affordable Care Act and a host of other Obama policies as parts of that same ongoing scandal–which reaches back to the days when young Barack sat around with Bill Ayers in Chicago plotting the destruction of Western Civilization. So pace Chait, I think they are less inclined to view climate change policies as an effort to distract critics from “scandals” than to consider them an important, perhaps crucial, part of the same Big Scandal.

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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.