Congressional Republicans Are Milking the Scandals for Everything

GOP members in both chambers finally feel like they have something to hang around the president's neck.

The Internal Revenue Service building at the Federal Triangle complex in Washington, Saturday, March 2, 2013.  (AP)

As of just a month ago, dirt-digging Republicans had failed to hang anything around President Obama's neck. It wasn't for lack of trying. During Obama's first term, the GOP pointed frantically to claims of wrongdoing in the White House. But the allegations — over the failed investment in the clean-energy company Solyndra and the debacle of the government's "Fast and Furious" gun-running operation — lacked mainstream resonance. They didn't interest ordinary voters, nor did they damage the administration's credibility. But this month's trio of controversies — a congressional inquiry into last year's deadly attack in Benghazi, the Justice Department's secret probe into the phone records of Associated Press reporters, and the revelation that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups — threaten to do both. Now Republicans devising the party's midterm election strategy, handed their first real White House scandals, are seizing the moment.

They're playing both the short and the long game, harnessing conservative outrage and knocking Democrats off message while also tying vulnerable lawmakers to the suddenly embattled president. The narratives haven't yet coalesced: Some in the party want to paint a picture of government overreach; others want to tag Democrats as scandal-ridden. But in the end, that may not matter much. If Obama slips, he takes his allies with him.

"Every Republican strategist has looked at this week and said, "˜Uh-oh, something could move here,' " said Curt Anderson, a longtime Republican consultant. "I know there are already people looking at that and saying, "˜2014 might be a decent year after all.' "

Weeks like this are one reason the president's party is routinely whipped in midterm elections during a second term, but some Republican operatives aren't ready yet to declare the scandals a seismic event. There are still 18 months to go before November 2014, after all. And Democrats, while less than thrilled with Obama's woes, say they hope Republicans become so preoccupied with investigating the president that they neglect the middle-class issues the electorate truly cares about.

Still, the GOP is doing the best it can to take advantage, and, in some cases, is already reaping the benefits. So far, party lawmakers have emphasized the IRS scandal, which is universally seen as the most politically consequential of the three imbroglios because of the agency's place in everybody's lives (not to mention its major role in implementing Obama's health care law). Early in the week, officials at the National Republican Congressional Committee called on House Democrats to publicly denounce the IRS's actions; the committee later launched paid Web ads targeting members who hadn't yet done so.

House Democrats and their counterparts in the Senate needed little encouragement, rushing — often harshly — to distance themselves from the mess. As Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., put it, according to The Boston Globe, "I spent my youth vilifying the Nixon administration for doing the same thing."

The defensive crouch is a "paradigm shift" that diminishes Democrats' ability to slam the GOP for trying to repeal "˜Obamacare' or opposing a minimum-wage hike, according to one NRCC aide. "They have been in an offensive position," the aide said. "Now they have to respond to things that are happening in their own party rather than just criticize Republicans."

Republicans also hope to use the controversies to stoke the embers of a conservative movement that seemed to be only flickering. That seems a fait accompli: The NRCC's website saw its highest-ever day of traffic when the IRS revelations came to light, and committee officials say in the handful of days since, they reached a quarter of their total online fundraising goal for the entire year. "At a minimum, all of these story lines embolden the Republicans' grassroots," said Brian Walsh, a consultant who worked at the National Republican Senatorial Committee the past two cycles. "Which is what you saw at the start of the 2010 cycle; it's reigniting the fervor at the grassroots level."

The GOP's plan is far from foolproof. Obama or even his inner circle have yet to be directly linked to any of the controversies. If voters don't hold him personally accountable, tying Democrats to him loses its potency. And the prospect of an investigation most likely lasting at least through the summer could send the wrong message to voters still far more worried about the economy. (Monicagate, anyone?) "If voters see continued inaction in Washington and another series of circus-like hearings that have no conclusion and no real ending, particularly given the bad place the Republican brand is in, I think that's problematic for them," said Jef Pollock, a Democratic consultant.

If it becomes a battle between the House Republicans investigating Obama and the president himself, Democrats are confident they have the upper hand. "President Obama's approval rating remains well north of the Republican Congress, just like it has for his entire term," said Emily Bittner, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Looking to 2014, the same things that were broken last week in the Republican Congress will remain broken next summer: their dysfunction, chaos, obstruction."

Easy to say, but GOP strategists finally have their scandal. Now they have to make sure they don't blow it.