Nonscandals are having no effect

I recently met a woman who repeatedly referred to her life partner as her “non-husband.” It struck me as a bit strange, but it came quickly to mind thinking about the troika of troubles now facing the administration. They are “non-scandals,” though no one calls them that. At this point, relatively few people are paying attention to them, and they have had no discernible effect on the president, though both of those could change. 

GOP comparisons to Watergate reflect either poor historiography or political hackery — or both. Part of what made Watergate such a horrific scandal was the answer to Republican Senate Leader Howard Baker’s (R-Tenn.) famous questions, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” It turned out quite a lot, quite early. Then-President Nixon personally directed the Internal Revenue Service to audit political opponents and ordered a cover-up of the Watergate burglary. This was not just inter-agency squabbling or lower-level federal employees taking matters into their own hands, but rather the president of the United States personally ordering subordinates to break the law. 

In the cases now under discussion, there was no presidential involvement, period. The president was not involved in developing the Benghazi talking points. The president was not involved with the IRS’s audits and the president was not involved in the AP subpoena. That’s a vast and important difference. 

Another element of Watergate’s horror was the fact that the president acted illegally and did so under the theory that his decisions made any action legal. No violation of the law is even alleged in the context of the current troika. It’s certainly inappropriate for the IRS to target particular groups, but, however misguided, they were attempting to enforce the law against shadowy groups that were evading taxes by claiming they were engaged in social welfare activities, while in fact many of these organizations were running partisan political ads that do not qualify for a tax exemption. 

Of course, the facts can have little to do with perceptions. How are Americans reacting to the events?

First, they are not terribly engaged. Gallup has examined public interest in more than 200 news stories over time and finds interest in these “well below average.” Pew found just 23 percent following news about the Benghazi hearings “very closely” — down sharply from the level of interest evinced in October. The 23 percent following Benghazi compares to 20 percent following the immigration debate and 40 percent engaged with the Cleveland kidnap story. 

Second, Americans are divided on these matters. On the one hand a CNN/ORC poll found voters dissatisfied with the way the Obama administration has handled Benghazi recently — though “handling the issue” encompasses a wide variety of actions. At the same time, the same poll found Americans saying the talking points were not designed to mislead but rather reflected what the administration thought at the time by a 6-point margin. Americans are about evenly divided on whether the administration has been honest about the issue and about whether the GOP has gone too far. 

Third, majorities view them as serious and worthy of investigation. Democrats reject that view, but both Republicans and independents look forward to more definitive answers.

Finally, this troika of troubles has not yet affected the president’s public standing. His approval rating hasn’t budged. The latest CNN/ORC poll pegged his approval rating at 53 percent, up ever so slightly from their previous reading. ABC/Washington Post’s poll found 51 percent approving of the president’s performance, a point higher than they found last month. Aggregators too have seen little or no change, yet. But the mutual fund warnings apply equally to non-scandals: “past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.