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A Field Guide To Democratic Responses To Scandals

President Obama checks to see if it's still raining as a Marine holds an umbrella for him during a joint news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House on Thursday.
Charles Dharapak
President Obama checks to see if it's still raining as a Marine holds an umbrella for him during a joint news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House on Thursday.

President Obama's first term was free from the kind of scandal that consumes every ounce of political oxygen in Washington. Now, in light of a trio of controversies, his supporters find themselves in the uncomfortable and unaccustomed position of having to defend some hard-to-defend events.

Democrats have offered up a range of responses. They view the issues — Benghazi, the IRS and the Justice Department snooping on The Associated Press — as separate issues that shouldn't be lumped together.

"It is shriekingly frustrating to me to learn a narrative is taking shape that utterly misses the main contours of the event now taking place," says Rick Perlstein, a liberal journalist and historian. "Three scandals or alleged scandals, all very different from one another in substance, seriousness and nature of their relationship to presidential accountability, being packaged together in a Scandal Moment."

Democrats who hope this will all blow over may have been encouraged by a Gallup poll released Thursday, which suggested that a "comparatively low" number of Americans are closely following the IRS and Benghazi stories.

But most of those surveyed said the two cases deserve further investigation. Knowing that Obama is in for weeks, if not months, of further scrutiny and criticism, progressives have offered a range of responses about what has happened and how it should be judged.

It's not exactly akin to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief, but that well-known outline is still a useful model for looking at the state of the left in this time of trouble for the Obama White House.

1. Denial

From the White House on down, Democrats believe the controversy over the terrorist attack last September on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, has been overblown.

Much of the debate, after all, has centered not on questions of security failures, but who offered edits to which draft of talking points after the fact. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has repeatedly asserted that administration critics are attempting to "politicize" the issue.

In the case of the IRS targeting Tea Party chapters and other conservative groups, the administration initially sought to deny responsibility, suggesting it was the unfettered work of low-level officials in the Cincinnati office. It has since conceded that decision-making took place at a higher level.

The Justice Department is investigating and Obama forced the resignation of the acting IRS commissioner, Steven Miller, on Wednesday. Miller told the House Ways and Means Committee on Friday that "foolish mistakes were made," although not with partisan intent.

Still, some commentators on the left have argued that the IRS was just trying to do its job in checking out applications from politically oriented organizations that were claiming to be "social welfare" groups.

Having "slogged through" the report of the Treasury Department's inspector general, blogger Brad Friedman doesn't find any evidence of the kind of "misconduct" the president himself has complained about.

"Further investigation may uncover such behavior, but if there was purposeful or criminal misconduct by anyone in the office, the IG's report doesn't seem to offer any actual evidence of it," Friedman writes.

2. Anger

There's plenty of anger — not just at Republicans for exploiting the scandals, but at the media for playing along with them.

"The right sees these contretemps as vehicles for creating an atmosphere of scandal," writes Heather Parton, who blogs under the pseudonym Digby. "And the press, caught up in the daily churn of information, fails to see the forest for the trees every time."

But there are also Democrats who are angry at the administration for its mistakes.

"I just think this has been handled so wrong," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Wednesday, referring to the Justice Department's broad pursuit of phone records in its hunt for the leaker who gave the AP information about a foiled terror plot.

3. Bargaining

Bargaining is the fallback position in the early stages of any scandal. If we release such-and-such cache of documents, won't that make the questions go away? How does our guy's transgression compare to what your guy did during his administration?

A key type of bargaining that takes place in the midst of scandal is the attempt to point out that there wasn't an intent to sin. Or, sometimes, that the sins under discussion are not unique.

At DailyKos, senior political writer Joan McCarter writes that liberal groups seeking tax-exempt status received the same queries from the IRS as Tea Party affiliates. "In fact, the only group to have its application denied was a liberal group," she writes. (On average, progressive groups received far faster approvals, though.)

Obama played the ultimate bargaining chip himself when he forced Miller to resign from the IRS.

"Based on my twitter feed, Washington scandal volcano does not find Steven Miller an appropriate sacrifice," tweeted Daniel Malloy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Meanwhile, some have pointed out in the AP snooping story the DOJ may have been motivated by pressure from congressional Republicans. Those lawmakers may be piling on now, but they were demanding answers about the AP's source.

And, with last week's reports of damaging emails about Benghazi turning out to be incomplete or misleading, former Obama adviser David Plouffe tweeted, "How is this not a 'scandal' with wall to wall coverage?"

4. Depression

If, as is often said, depression is anger turned inward, some Democrats are depressed.

From the president on down, most Democrats recognize that the IRS and AP situations, at least, are serious matters. Not everyone has been happy about how the administration has responded.

"His crisis-management communications team is absent without leave," Lanny Davis, formerly a top spinmeister for President Bill Clinton, told my colleague Frank James on Monday. "I've wondered if there's anybody there trying to get out in front of the facts."

The White House has since become more aggressive about releasing documents and responding to the various charges.

Some Democrats are still unhappy. MSNBC host Chris Matthews, an Obama fan, was notably very critical. On Tuesday, Matthews said Obama's "a ship with the engine off."

By Wednesday, Matthews was complaining that Obama "obviously likes giving speeches more than he does running the executive branch."

5. Acceptance

Like a diver unable to find the bottom, Democrats know the president's season of scandal is nowhere near its end.

They may believe what's been revealed so far is not crippling, especially as Obama himself has not been implicated personally in any of the three controversies. Still, no one knows what the coming weeks of congressional hearings and media coverage may bring.

Greg Sargent, an online columnist for The Washington Post, suggests that the scandals will prevent Obama from engaging in an impulse many progressives consider his true flaw: his willingness to compromise with Republicans.

"Liberals who are dreading the scandal-mania that is taking hold should note that it contains a potential upside: It could make a Grand Bargain that includes cuts to Medicare and Social Security benefits even less likely than it already is," Sargent writes. "That's because when scandal grips Washington, a president actually needs his core supporters more than ever to ward it off, making it harder to do anything that will alienate them."

Appearing on MSNBC Thursday, Democratic strategist James Carville sounded optimistic, describing the Benghazi and AP stories as nonstarters and suggesting that the IRS controversy would "burn itself out" in 30 days.

Given the polarities of our time, perhaps it's not surprising that some Obama supporters took greater heart from a prediction by conservative pundit Dick Morris that Obama could ultimately face impeachment.

"Dick Morris says IRS scandal could lead to Obama's impeachment," tweeted David Corn, Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones. "Which means ... it won't."

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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