As the Obama administration grapples with a series of recent controversies within its ranks, political observers in Washington have begun to calculate their potential political impacts. But while many Republicans believe the scandals could prove a boon to the party’s prospects in the 2014 midterm elections, they it’s equally important not to “overreach” on the issue — and risk having their efforts blow up in their face.
Within the last week, President Obama has been dogged by ongoing questions about last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi; the revelation that the IRS was targeting conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status; and the news that the Justice Department seized two months of phone records from the Associated Press. Unless this confluence of controversies fades away quickly, strategists say, their impact may be felt in elections across the country in 2014.
“The more these scandals hurt the president, the more they historically hurt the party,” said Trey Hardin, a Republican strategist, in an interview with CBSNews.com. “It’s a natural drag on the party.”
Republicans will be doing their best to make sure that’s the case. With a shot at taking back the Senate, and a decent chance of keeping the House in Republican control, the GOP would benefit by associating statewide candidates with a president who’s perceived as unpopular or untrustworthy.
- Will anyone go to jail over IRS targeting?
- Ousted IRS chief: “I did not mislead” the American people
- Officials on Benghazi: “We made mistakes, but without malice”
“The main victim of this White House’s mistakes will be the people in his political party that are up for election the next time,” said Terry Holt, a Republican strategist and former campaign strategist for former President George W. Bush. “The Senate is more in play in 2014, and the Republicans sort of fumbled the ball with regard to the Senate races last time. This may make it marginally easier for them.”
Republicans face a risk, however, when it comes to treading the thin line between taking advantage of an opportunity and acting with crass political calculation, as evidenced by the 1998 midterm elections, when Democrats made gains despite a scandal-ridden Clinton administration.
“Republicans have to be very careful about overreaching and overplaying this,” Hardin said. “I lived through impeachment and it was a dicey time… I think there are many in this country who identify the Republican Party as the party that went after impeachment which, at the end of the day, is not the most popular thing to do.”
Particularly coming off the last election, during which the GOP was branded as “the party that’s against people,” Hardin says, it’s important to step carefully.
“They’ve got to be careful about going too far,” he said. “I don’t think it is effective to be asking people to resign, because I think that when you do that you’re preempting the strategy of exposing more wrongs. The old saying is, if your opponent’s shooting himself in the foot, don’t take the gun away.”
Instead, he said, the party needs to push a specific agenda while keeping up the investigations.
“The Republican Party has to still be very actively promoting their initiatives and messaging… There can’t be a vacuum on their normal responsibilities for succeeding as a political party. But if they can effectively do that, then I think both pushing their agenda as well as investigating these very real scandals can coexist.”
“Fix it and let the politics take care of itself,” Holt added. “Because the president and its people have already demonstrated where they’re coming from; they’re already committing the sin.”
The longer the scandals are in the news, the greater the possibility they’ll make an impression on voters, potentially casting a pall over the Obama administration that might lead to political ramifications down the road. According to Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, a former Clinton administration official and crisis management expert, that’s why the administration should lay all its cards on the table immediately, promise tough consequences for wrongdoing, and let the public move on.
“On two out of three of these issues they did the right thing,” he said. Even if Republicans attempt to keep the scandals in the news by holding congressional hearings, he said, “hearings need oxygen – new oxygen, fresh oxygen – to generate any type of real estate with the free press.”
That’s where the administration went wrong on Benghazi, he said. “The administration should have put out all those emails [abut the CIA talking points] right from the very beginning,” he said. “They would have put them out under their terms, they would have gotten the benefit of the doubt, and dealt with it all in one fell swoop… But now that they’re all out here and presumably most if not all of the information is now public, there’s a predictable waning level of interest unless there’s actually real new news out there.”
According Lehane, the challenge for the Obama administration is proving that Republicans are using the controversies as an excuse to score political points.
“The whole battle here is, are the Republicans able to brand this as a legitimate inquiry? Or is Obama able to brand what the Republicans are up to as overtly partisan?” Lehane said.
Holt argues Republicans have more leeway to sound partisan on something like the IRS controversy, because the agency’s targeting was based on political keywords.
“The IRS is a very tangible bogeyman for most people, and to think that the political opposition to the party in power could be targeted by the government is very scary,” he said. “If there were a war analogy, it’d be that they started shooting first with the weapons they are privileged to have as the administration of the American government. They started it.”