'Obamagate' danger for the GOP: political overreach

Republicans are jumping all over what they see as major scandals in the Obama administration, including Benghazi, the IRS, and checking journalists’ phone records. But some in the GOP are warning against the perception of overreach for partisan purposes.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Ways and Means Committee member Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, holds up a binder with documents about a constituent's application to the Internal Revenue Service that was delayed due to the extra scrutiny the IRS gave conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status.

Benghazi terrorist attack ... IRS and the tea party ... snooping on Associated Press reporters ... losing track of terrorists in the witness protection program.

What the heck, let’s just call the whole thing “Obamagate,” a cluster of what Washington calls “scandals” threatening to undermine whatever President Obama hoped to achieve in his second term.

“Impeachment” is being flung around by some opponents as congressional committee chairmen in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives line up to fire rhetorically at administration officials.

But there’s a danger for the GOP too, some Republicans warn – particularly since Congress already labors under a 79 percent disapproval rate, according to the latest Gallup survey.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich concedes that Republicans “overreached” in 1998 when they pushed for then-President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the Monica Lewinsky affair. 

Today, Gingrich told NPR Friday, House Republicans leading the investigative parade “need to be calm and factual,” proceeding with caution as they sniff out any administration wrongdoing.

"For example,” he said, “a [House] subcommittee ... should invite every single tea party, conservative, patriot group that was messed over by the IRS – every single one of them – to come in and testify, so that they build this deadening record of how many different people were having their rights abused by this administration.”

New York Times writer Jonathan Weisman echoes Gingrich’s point: “The most pressing question for Congressional Republicans is no longer how to finesse changes to immigration law or gun control, but how far they can push their cases against President Obama without inciting a backlash of the sort that has left them staggering in the past.”

“I’m being very cautious not to overplay my hand,” US Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., (R) of Louisiana, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee investigating the IRS, told the Times.

An editorial this week in the conservative National Review picks up the same theme. Its headline: “Scandal Is Not an Agenda.”

“Democratic scandal does not take the place of a Republican agenda,” the magazine’s editors write. “It does not reform the tax code or reduce the debt or ease regulatory burdens on small business. It cannot substitute for a strategy to replace Obamacare.”

“By all means, Republicans should run against the president and his party,” the editorial continues. “They should at the same time understand that a purely negative message, however justified, will not produce the governing majority Republicans should be aiming for in the next two elections.”

Mike Allen and Jim Vanderhei at Politico.com put it more colorfully: “Republicans are worried one thing could screw up the political gift of three Obama administration controversies at once: fellow Republicans.

“Top GOP leaders are privately warning members to put a sock in it when it comes to silly calls for impeachment or over-the-top comparisons to Watergate,” they write. “They want members to focus on months of fact-finding investigations – not rhetorical fury.”

Some of the most furious Republicans: Rep. Michele Bachmann asserting that the IRS probe of tea partiers “is far worse than Watergate;” Sen. James Inhofe suggesting Obama’s impeachment; Sen. Ted Cruz likening Obama to Richard Nixon; former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee predicting darkly that “before it’s all over, this president will not fill out his full term.”

“We have to be persistent but patient,” counters Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who told Politico, “You don’t call for impeachment until you have evidence.”

Amitai Etzioni, professor of international relations at George Washington University, wonders about the longer-term impact of scandal mania.

“There is little doubt about the side effects of hearings, investigations, and media hoopla to follow: they will eat up much of whatever little political capital exists in Washington for bipartisan deals and constructive action,” he writes in The Atlantic. “And they are sure to further delegitimize our political institutions, which the public already holds in unprecedented contempt.”

Obama’s current troubles may include some genuinely scandalous behavior. But if Republicans are perceived as bogging down legitimate government activity for political gain, they may be scarred as well.

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