Welcome to the three-ring circus

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Welcome to the three-ring circus
Welcome to the three-ring circus
White House photo

A Jon Chait piece the other day reminded me of the GSA controversy from a while back. Remember that one? We learned last year that the General Services Administration had misused public funds, spent excessively on several training conferences, and a legitimate mess ensued. There were congressional hearings, several officials resigned, and the GSA was forced to clean up its act in a hurry.

If this doesn’t ring a bell, or if you never heard about it in the first place, that’s because most of the political world didn’t much care. There was some coverage, but it was seen as an intra-agency fiasco that was dealt with fairly quickly. One could argue that the GSA is part of the executive branch, and the executive branch is led by President Obama, so the buck may ultimately stop with him, but no one seriously suggested the president was to blame for this, and it certainly wasn’t characterized as a “White House scandal.”

I mention this because the political world’s standards appear to have changed in a hurry.

The IRS story, for example, is a legitimate controversy, just as the GSA story was, but it too is an intra-agency fiasco – confused bureaucrats struggled with ambiguous tax standards, in the midst of breakdowns in communication between staff and management. They screwed up in a big way, and the agency will have to clean up its act. But does this have anything to do with the president or the White House? Based on everything we now know, not even a little. And yet, everyone from Jon Stewart to Rush Limbaugh is blaming Obama anyway.

There are different explanations for this, but the political world’s preoccupation with “narratives” seems to have quite a bit to do with it. And right now, the preferred narrative has to do with White House scandals and a presidency in crisis, even if that doesn’t really make sense.

E.J. Dionne summarized the issue nicely this morning:

I know, I know: This “confluence” of “scandals” spells “trouble” for the Obama administration. Well, sure, this has been hell week for the president. But what spells trouble for our country is our apparent eagerness to avoid debate about discrete problems by sacrificing the particulars and the facts to the idol of political narrative. It’s a false god.

There are three distinct stories that have captured so much attention, which I suspect is part of what’s driving the narrative – once is chance, twice is coincidence, the third time makes a pattern, and much of the political world has decided there must be a pattern pointing to something since, you know, there are three stories.

But the eagerness to embrace the narrative, and publish a few too many stories about a “second-term curse,” may have blurred the political world’s sense of perspective.

Benghazi isn’t a political controversy, and it never was. It seems likely to me that many of the pundits overcome by scandal lust know this, but nevertheless feel compelled to include in the controversy triumvirate anyway, in part because they need three elements, and in part because the “scandal’s” lack of merit is less important than the narrative itself. It doesn’t matter if there’s no meaningful political controversy; what matters is that people might perceive a political controversy in the midst of unrelated stories, which makes it a problem – or worse, a “distraction” – for the White House.

And what of the other two? The IRS matter and AP subpoenas are real controversies, worthy of attention, scrutiny, and remedies, though both have far more to do with policy disputes than Nixonian cover-ups and White House intrigue.

For his part, Obama was busy yesterday, releasing materials on Benghazi, pushing for a media shield law, and firing the acting head of the IRS. Apparently, this led to a new narrative: has Obama, on the defensive, done enough to “stop the bleeding”?

Enough for whom? I don’t know, though I suspect it has something to do with whoever decided Obama was bleeding in the first place.

Barack Obama and Scandals

Welcome to the three-ring circus

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