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“Flaws of Procedures,” Not Scandals!

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Charles M. Blow

 

I have watched in recent days as a parade of conservatives have used specific and real governmental missteps to justify their wide-ranging paranoia and irrational hostilities. “Aha!”

You have to take their glee in sorrow with a grain of salt. For them this is more about their scandal lust than what’s scandalous. These people have been searching for a scandal — Kenyan birth certificates and a Michelle Obama “whitey” tape — for years. The fact that they now have something solid and not made of sand is going to make sad souls happy. That’s to be expected.

What’s not to be expected — but has become depressingly predictable — is to watch liberals rending their garments and gnashing their teeth in woe-is-us doom chanting. The overreaction is exhausting and embarrassing.

Let’s say what this confluence of missteps is and what it is not — at least as the evidence now suggests.

First, the three issues — Benghazi, the targeting of conservative groups by the I.R.S. and the Department of Justice’s monitoring of Associated Press journalists — appear to be completely unrelated, try as politicians and pundits may to connect them. Second, the president does not appear to have had any direct involvement in any of the episodes. Third, their weight and resonances differ greatly, although all could be diminished by their emerging concurrently.

At this point, this is about flaws of procedures — some possibly illegal, all very disturbing — and problems of perception. But they are neither fatal nor unfixable.

Now, let’s separate the well-worn Benghazi witch hunt from the other two. From all appearances that is just a callous use of a tragic event to take a political slap at President Obama and a stab at the likely Democratic presidential heavyweight Hillary Clinton. It is being conducted by hyperpartisan politicians and aggravated by Fox News, both with a stake in justifying their unjustifiable contempt for this Democratic administration, and foiling the next one.

But Americans appear to be tiring of all that chasing of smoke and little finding of fire.

According to a Pew Research Center poll issued this week, the percentage of Americans closely following the Benghazi news has continued to fall. Less than half of the respondents believe that the Obama administration has been dishonest, while almost as many say that the Republicans have gone too far in the hearings. At least one in five don’t know either way.

According to the Pew Poll:

“About half (56 percent) of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they regularly watch the Fox News channel, and this group is particularly frustrated over the Benghazi situation. Fully 79 percent of Republicans who regularly watch Fox News say the Obama administration has been dishonest, compared with 60 percent of Republicans who don’t watch Fox regularly. Nearly half (46 percent) of Republicans who regularly watch Fox News say they are following the story very closely — compared with 23 percent among other Republicans. Those who regularly watch Fox News are also far more critical of the news media: 59 percent say the hearings have not received sufficient coverage by the news media.”

On the I.R.S. scandal, however, it certainly appears that the agency behaved stupidly. Not because they sought to scrutinize the mockery that is these 501(c)4 “social welfare” groups, but because they did so unevenly. But what will be left after all the hue and cry? As the Notre Dame law professor Lloyd Mayer told the Christian Science Monitor this week:

“What has been missed in the outrage is the recognition that this problem arose from much deeper sources than the poor judgment or possible partisan bias of a handful of I.R.S. employees.”

He continued:

“Congress has given the I.R.S. the difficult task of applying an incredibly vague definition of political activity and an uncertain standard for how much political activity tax-exempt social welfare organizations may engage in.”

That, in the end, is the real scandal.

And now to the Associated Press scandal. The Justice Department was just wrong in the employ of its dragnet, and the administration — as represented by a spokesman, Jay Carney — was disingenuous in its insistence that the administration supports “unfettered” journalism. It just doesn’t. But we’ve always known that, at least we in the media have. The scandal here is that an atmosphere of intolerance for leaks — which Republicans ironically accused the Obama administration of encouraging — seems to have overtaken the Justice Department.

On Wednesday the White House took steps to mitigate the damage, releasing more than 100 pages of Benghazi talking point e-mails, seeking to revive a shield law for reporters who refused to disclose confidential sources, and having the president himself deliver a statement on the I.R.S. In it he announced the resignation of the acting commissioner of the agency, the implementation of new safeguards and a pledge to work with Congress in investigating the matter. As the president said, “The good news is that it’s fixable.”  And, it is.

That’s it — the gist of all three as far as we know at this point. These are not administration-enders. People can be punished, or fired or even jailed, if Speaker John Boehner has his way, but at this early stage signs are not pointing to any of those people being in the White House.

Even if I had hair, I wouldn’t be setting it on fire, not yet anyway.

(This column originally appeared in the New York Times May 15, 2013 under the title “Scandalous vs. Scandal Lust”)

Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at chblow@nytimes.com.”

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