Over at The Week, I make the argument that presidential scandal politics usually fail to lift the political prospects of the party outside the White House. No party has reaped a political reward from pushing scandal since Nixon, yet both parties have repeatedly tried.
However, short of impeachment or electoral gains, opposition parties may be sated by simply using scandal to distract the President from advancing his agenda. But today, that doesn’t make sense. Republicans already have the numbers in Congress to block what they want. And the main item on Obama’s legislative agenda for the year is one that leading Republicans now support: immigration reform.
Furthermore, distraction cuts two ways. By flogging scandal, the opposition party risks distracting themselves from developing and selling their own governing philosophy and policy agenda. And Republicans are already in a deep intellectual hole, lacking an agenda that makes a break from failed Bushonomics and might be taken seriously by the public.
Republican might also want to ask themselves: do we really believe there’s any there there?
Does it even make sense that Obama would have lost re-election if he quickly blamed Al Qaeda for Benghazi, having already proven his counterterrorism bona fides?
Does it makes sense that an IRS managed by a Bush administration holdover would allow a plot to prevent Republicans from defeating Obama by deliberately targeting county-level Tea Party groups but blessed Karl Rove’s new machine with tax-exempt status?
Is it even a scandal for the Justice Department to apply current law and subpoena phone records in a sensitive national security leak investigation? Controversial and worthy of debate, but no heads are going to roll if it’s legal.
Meanwhile, there are real scandals out there: festering crises that demand policy solutions and government action. For example:
1. Carbon dioxide atmospheric levels hovering around 400 parts per million. Some argue that we need to be at 350 ppm to avoid the ill effects of global warming. But considering the rapid rate we are putting carbon in the air, and the difficulty involved in removing what is already in the air, we may literally never be able to get below 400, ever.
2. Our crumbling infrastructure needs $3.6 trillion just to reach a “state of good repair,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. That doesn’t even count what it would cost to build new modern infrastructure such as high-speed rail or a smart electric grid. One proposal, backed by President Obama, is to help get started is to launch an infrastructure bank, using small amounts federal seed money to attract big private investment. The approach has won the backing of both the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but Republicans have failed to embrace it or propose any significant alternatives.
3. The top 1 percent in America holds 35 percent of the nation’s wealth. It was not always thus. Over the last 30 years, the top 1 percent has increased its wealth by 38%, while the bottom 60 percent has seen their wealth diminish. In other words, inequality has gotten worse. And that’s harmful for all of society. As one professor explains: “A wide range of social problems are worse in societies with bigger income differences between rich and poor. These include physical and mental illness, violence, low math and literacy scores among young people, lower levels of trust and weaker community life, poorer child well-being, more drug abuse, lower social mobility and higher rates of imprisonment and teenage births.”
4. More than 4 million Americans have been jobless for more than half a year. The long-term unemployment problem is not only devastating for those directly affect, it’s also a major drag on the recovery of the entire economy. Those out of the workforce for extended periods of time have a much harder time getting rehired than those briefly unemployed. We are risking the creation of a permanent underclass to care for instead of tapping our labor pool to the fullest extent possible.
5. Forty percent of America’s children between 3 and 5 are not enrolled any sort of preschool let alone a high-quality program that research shows can make a critical difference in their ability to perform well in school and find good jobs in later life. This is a major gap in the American promise of equal opportunity for all.
These are all massive problems with no easy fixes. You might think a major political party would have something to say about them, spend some time developing ideas to solve them, and seek to build public support for those ideas.
Or Republicans can chase Benghazi down the rabbit hole.
There are plenty of scandals out there to choose from. What a party chooses to focus on speaks volumes.