Will Republicans Screw Up Again? Some Are Already Overreaching

Stuart Rothenberg May 22, 2013 · 9:48 AM EDT

Some Republicans are so excited at the thought of multiple controversies dogging the White House over the next few months (or longer) that they are already foaming at the mouth.

For example, on his syndicated radio show late last week, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee compared reports of the IRS targeting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status to what happened in Nazi Germany.

And, of course, you knew that some conservatives and Republicans (such as Glenn Beck, Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann) couldn’t resist mentioning the “I” word — impeachment — almost immediately as they struggled to show their anger and contempt for President Barack Obama and his administration.

But Republicans ought to remember that they have seen this movie before, and the ending was not what they hoped for or expected.

There’s no doubt that the three controversies — Benghazi, the IRS and the Associated Press — play into the GOP’s hand by raising questions about “big government.” They give Republicans an opportunity to challenge the administration’s truthfulness and to argue for a check on the president during his final years in office.

While the president hasn’t been implicated directly, that certainly doesn’t eliminate the political risk for the White House or for Democrats over the next few month or possibly all the way to next year’s midterm elections.

But let’s not forget: Republicans failed to capitalize on President Bill Clinton’s inappropriate conduct by over-playing their hand and pushing impeachment. Not only did they fail to drive him from office, the GOP ended up losing a handful of House seats in the 1998 midterms instead of adding seats as initially expected.

Republicans allowed themselves to look as if they were primarily interested in scoring political points and overturning the results of the 1996 election, even if it meant paralyzing the government.

That same danger exists once again for the GOP.

With fundraising playing such a huge part in our politics, some conservative groups will be tempted to use the trifecta of controversies to play to their bases to boost anger and fundraising.

This, in turn, will make the issues appear more and more partisan, giving the president the same opportunity that Clinton used when he sought to rise above “politics” and called for members of both parties to address public policy challenges.

Of course, there are differences between 1998 and 2013.

Though Clinton undoubtedly lied about his behavior and besmirched his office, he was caught in a personal scandal. As we have seen repeatedly, while personal scandals provide fodder for late-night comedians and social commentators, voters seem willing to overlook them. Just ask current South Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Sanford.

Obama’s problems certainly haven’t yet been laid at his doorstep, and there’s no reason to believe that he was directly responsible for the controversies in the ways that Clinton and then-Gov. Sanford were. But the current controversies go to the heart of how government operates and how it communicates with its people, raising more fundamental questions than the Clinton and Sanford personal scandals did.

In other words, voters easily understand the notion of individual weakness — and redemption. But they have a much harder time accepting government mistakes and misjudgments.

If Sunday’s TV appearances by big-name Republicans are any indication, party leaders have decided to use a “culture of cover-ups and political intimidation” argument to link recent controversies and put them in a far broader context, making it easier to link them to the White House. Columnist George Will even identified potential fourth and fifth scandals in his May 16 column, “Obama’s Tapped-Out Trust.”

Democrats used the same strategy during President George W. Bush’s second term — and only a slightly different phrase, “culture of corruption” — during their effort to regain the House in 2006. Winning 30 seats and the majority showed that they were successful.

Obviously, the great danger now for the president and his party is that one of the existing controversies expands dramatically or even that another controversy emerges that fits neatly into the GOP’s storyline. While the just-released CNN poll doesn’t show the president has been hurt by the controversies, those findings shouldn’t lull Democrats into a sense of security. They already have reason to worry about candidate recruitment.

Republicans certainly can continue to raise questions about the administration’s behavior, but they would improve their prospects if they can use those controversies to raise questions about the Obama team’s performance and goals.

The White House, on the other hand, must hope that Democrats can portray Republicans as placing a higher priority on embarrassing the president than on dealing with the day-to-day concerns of real people. For Obama, a foreign policy crisis might even be just what the doctor ordered.