WASHINGTON, May 16, 2013 ― The GOP’s Prague Spring is over. Established interests have reasserted their stranglehold on the party’s agenda, replacing any suggestion of outreach with a scorched-earth Scandalgate Gambit. Pundits are already claiming that the IRS scandal is worse than Watergate and it probably is. Watergate was a short term disaster for the Republican Party. By smothering the party’s nascent reorganization, this strategic mistake might threaten the GOP’s long term viability.
For a couple of months it looked like the Republican Party might start thinking again. Brown folk were consulted. Ideas were discussed. A State GOP Chairman in Illinois suggested we end the fight against same sex marriage and (briefly) kept his job. There was a slim opening for traditional northern and urban Republicans to exercise influence they had lost over the past two decades.
The Scandalgate Gambit replaces any suggestion of outreach with a campaign to squeeze the last drops of political juice out of a dying (literally) demographic. The effort to convert every instance of bureaucratic mismanagement into High Crimes and Misdemeanors accomplishes two goals: activating the base and depressing turnout. It aims to strengthen the influence of a small, unpopular, but well-funded and organized core by driving away independents and low-interest voters with a powerful stench.
Even when a real scandal can be found, the Scandalgate Gambit rarely works. Iran-Contra involved actual criminal activity, traceable to the White House, including selling weapons to terrorists. Though it consumed a lot of airtime and created a nuisance for the Reagan Administration, it never mattered much politically.
Bill Clinton committed perjury in the midst of a lurid, humiliating personal scandal. The matter entertained television viewers for several months, but produced little political impact beyond gridlock.
Both criminal investigations were obscured and weakened by the decision to take them into the political arena. No one benefited and in both cases few if any of the perpetrators faced any punishment. In the long run, the people who sought to aggrandize those issues came out hardly better than the accused.
Republicans have less to work with now than was available in either of those scenarios. Nonetheless, the congressional leadership has cranked up the partisan scandal machine to 11 before they have found any illegal activity. The worst incident they’ve found, the heightened IRS scrutiny of a few tea party applications for tax-exempt status, is a turd they are likely to regret disturbing.
The IRS case is much like Fast and Furious in that its core is a problem Republicans do not want to talk about. The Fast and Furious operation was engineered in a desperate attempt by the ATF to halt the flow of guns to Mexican drug gangs. The awkward structure of the operation was forced by gun laws so deliberately weak as to be practically unenforceable.
The IRS’s absurd demands on tea party and other groups stemmed from their inability to halt gross abuses of tax exempt status by political groups. Again, not a subject Republicans want in the headlines, but that headline is coming.
Do Republicans really want to have heavily publicized hearings in which IRS officials explain what they were finding in tea party non-profit applications that raised such concern? Is there anyone who does not own a Ben Franklin costume who won’t be disgusted when they hear who was actually funding these efforts? Has anyone bothered to think this through?
With the Scandalgate Gambit, congressional Republicans are leading with their chins, opening the door for a Democratic Ollie North to do and say some things they will not enjoy. Worse, they have effectively handed the party’s steering wheel back to the miserable white martyrs in the tea party, making any continued effort at a modernized Republican agenda impossible without another thumping loss.
That loss probably won’t come in ’14. This vote-suppression/base enhancement effort might do its job in the low-interest climate of an off-year election. It’s over the longer term that Scandalgate takes its toll. As Mark Twain said, “A lie can spread halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”
Once the bluster is exhausted, here’s how the IRS scandal will probably be summarized outside the Great White Bubble: A few cells of the most unpopular political block in America were inconvenienced by IRS bureaucrats when they tried to exploit campaign finance loopholes to make their political fundraising tax deductible and hide the real sources of their money. Go ahead and ride that umbrage to glorious victory in 2016. Yes, this is worse than Watergate.
Using the Scandalgate Gambit is a terrible mistake, but it has already accomplished the most important goals of its fans. It has shut down any talk of rationalizing the party. It has sucked all the oxygen out of that crazy idea about listening to brown people. It has squashed any effort to build a credible set of policy alternatives. It has allowed the tea party to solidify its white-knuckled grip on the Republican agenda. For traditional Republicans longing for a return to sanity the time has come for a change in plans.
The Republican Spring is over. Get ready for a long, scorching summer.
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