The Washington Ritual of Second Term "Scandals"

May 15, 2013

This week saw two highly predictable Washington events -- the Caps were booted from the NHL playoffs by the New York Rangers, and a second term President was caught up in media controversy. Of the two, the Caps loss was slightly more surprising.

Second term Presidents, for whatever combination of historical reasons, seems to run into this problem. Every two-term chief executive in my lifetime* has faced it: Nixon had Watergate -- the granddaddy of second term problems -- Reagan had Iran-Contra, Clinton had Monica Lewinsky, and Bush had unmasked CIA agent Valerie Plame.

The problems now facing Obama are much smaller by comparison, and different in a fundamentally important way. The two latest squabbles -- IRS misdeeds and the Associated Press leak investigation  -- did not apparently involve the White House or the President at all, they simply happened during his term. He's in charge, so he's responsible, but they hardly speak to anything about his Presidency. (It's been said there are 3 million federal employees and at any given moment some of them are doing something wrong.) The other headline grabber is the Benghazi investigation, which seems to be an ongoing attempt to wring the last few drops of partisan advantage out of a tragic non-scandal. 

Obviously these things are different from the major scandals which involved past Presidents directly. Reagan personally approved arms for hostages, circumventing the law, and Clinton was solely and personally responsible for his behavior with Lewinsky. Obama's problems are closer to the Plame issue, in that neither President was directly involved. Bush's problem was closer, since the central figure was the top aide to his Vice President, but that still puts it in a different category. (And he should be given credit for holding that figure responsible by resisting pressure to pardon him.)

The smaller "scandals" that seem to crop up in every second term may be a matter of math -- more time in office provides a larger window during which problems can bubble up. Or maybe the press just gets bored or irritated with the cast of characters in the White House and is more willing to see something as scandalous. Or maybe standards slip over time.

Whatever the reason, I think these current issues will pass without too much long term disruption. They will be a distraction, and make progress on real issues a little more difficult, but they aren't going to change the course of major policy items. Immigration reform, for instance, will pass or not based on the bigger political factors that brought it forward in the first place. And with today's accelerated media cycle, the IRS and AP issues will burn white hot and then fade. After that, they'll become like Benghazi -- partisans will blow on the embers to keep them alive, but they'll be too dim for most voters to notice.

*I was born during the Johnson Administration but I'm not going to count him. Vietman, which kept him from running for another term, is too compliated to consider in this context. 

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