By John Feehery - 05/20/13 10:04 PM EDT
Can they walk and chew gum at the same time?
That will be the question for congressional Republicans as they navigate the next year and a half before the 2014 elections.
The conservative advocacy group Heritage Action has sent a warning letter to congressional Republicans telling them to stop walking toward legislative accomplishments and focus only on chewing up the administration on the scandal front.
They believe that the only way to keep Republicans united ideologically is to keep the pressure on the president through oversight.
But history would suggest that a sole focus on scandal could be a loser politically for the GOP.
In 1998, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) boldly predicted to the House GOP that they would gain 50 seats if they could successfully prosecute Bill Clinton in the court of public opinion using impeachment because of his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. The leadership proceeded to do nothing on the legislative front, hoping upon hope that impeachment would sink the president and his party.
It didn’t work. The scandal, while serious, didn’t dent the president’s approval ratings, and Democrats gained seats in the off-year election, shattering Republican expectations and forcing the resignation of the voluble Gingrich.
Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the current Speaker, understands this implicitly. He was on Gingrich’s leadership team in 1998, and in the post-impeachment fallout, he lost his position as conference chairman.
That is why his first reaction to this scandal was to say that Republicans have to focus on jobs. He knows that at the end of the day, voters vote on their own concerns in their daily lives — not the partisan battles that engulf Washington.
That doesn’t mean that House Republicans should give up their oversight role. They have to keep the pressure on Obama and keep the media honest on these investigations. We don’t know where this is ultimately going to end up. The president may not have known anything about these issues until he saw them on “The Daily Show,” but then again, he might have a real faulty memory.
Some of these scandals help on the legislative front.
The fact that the Internal Revenue Service has proven once again that it is too big, too powerful and too capricious makes tax reform more appealing to the average voter.
The coincidence — or was it fate? — that the person in change of investigating the Tea Party is now in charge of implementing ObamaCare helps prove the point that the president’s healthcare law is fated to be a disaster.
But these two issues are not enough to help Republicans build out their political base or gain appeal beyond their fairly narrow constituency.
House Republicans are nervous about moving forward on comprehensive immigration reform, and the Heritage Foundation is dead set against it, but they have no choice. If they want to be competitive in future national elections, they must facilitate final passage.
The fact that the Obama administration could continue to be under pressure from the scandals might help Republicans in getting immigration reform done (and tax reform for that matter). A weakened president who needs a deal is far easier to negotiate with than one who feels no pressure to compromise.
But right now, there is no evidence that these scandals are hurting him with the American people, and there is no reason to believe that the combination of the Benghazi/AP/IRS controversies is bigger than Watergate, as some would have us believe.
That means that Republicans would be well advised to continue to walk and chew gum at the same time. They should continue to proceed legislatively and not focus exclusively on the artificial sugar high that comes from scandal.
Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.