Scandal Time in Washington

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Why We Vote

Scandal Time in Washington

[Note: This essay is one in a continuing series by ICCFA executive director Bob Fells focusing on various issues in our federal government. Although the subjects are political in nature, the approach is bipartisan in outlook, at least so far as that is humanly possible. The goal of each essay is not to persuade the reader to adopt a particular political viewpoint or party, but to illustrate why a knowledge of the system is important to protect our businesses, our homes, and our families.]

This essay is something of a follow-up to my earlier, “The Curse of Presidential Second Term Syndrome,” where I reviewed the history behind the scandal-plagued second terms that seem to be the lot of modern U.S. Presidents since at least Richard Nixon in the 1970s. I must confess that I gave the Obama Administration at least until 2014 before the moorings came loose but the storm broke a mere four months after the President began his second term.

The problem with second term scandals is that we don’t know who to listen to. Invariably the loudest voices of outrage come from the opposing political party so taking the proverbial “grain of salt” to their shock and awe is helpful. So how can we tell whether the scandal du jour is the real McCoy or just politics as usual in the Land of Oz, I mean Capitol Hill?

First thing to look for is whether members of the President’s party are rushing to his aid. All second-term presidents at this point in their regime have a major difficulty in that they are about 36 months away from a lucrative retirement while their colleagues in the House and Senate are less than 24 months away from facing the voters for re-election. Party leaders can be expected to mount a defense but watch for the rank-and-file members to start voicing their concerns. When Republicans and Democrats start agreeing that something’s rotten in Denmark, then there really is a problem.  

In the “Predictable Responses Department,” look for the same agencies that caused the trouble to announce reforms. Look for Administration officials from the president, cabinet secretaries, and on down the food chain to state the obvious: this conduct will not be tolerated and changes will be implemented immediately. Of course, nothing would have happened if certain people weren’t caught in the first place.

Another predictable response: “We need a special prosecutor.” Actually, a special prosecutor buys time for the administration, takes the story off the front pages, and imposes a gag order on any meaningful discussion because of professional ethics and the confidentiality of the investigation. Months if not years go by before the special prosecutor makes his report and by then the news media’s five-minute attention span has moved on to other things.

A third predictable response: Impeach the President. The mandatory “high crimes and misdemeanors” required by the Constitution are rarely met or even approximated. The impeachment of Bill Clinton backfired badly on the members of Congress who spearheaded it. Almost all of them lost their bid for re-election from what they had assumed would be a grateful electorate. The handwriting on the wall was revealed early on in those “man in the street” comments we see on television. The question was whether Bill Clinton should resign from office because of his activities with a White House aide (you know the details).

Actually, the national reaction to the Clinton scandals was like a collective Rorschach test. A best-selling book caught the temper of the times, THE DEATH OF OUTRAGE, because many pundits could not understand why the public wasn’t demanding Clinton’s resignation. But did outrage over the president’s behavior really die or did many Americans simply see a little bit of themselves in Clinton’s conduct?

When ordinary people started saying, “Clinton shouldn’t have to resign over what he does in his private life,” the wise politicians on Capitol Hill should have realized that their political football was really a hand grenade ready to go off in their back pocket.

Many people personally liked Mr. Clinton and his “bad boy” behavior. Richard Nixon had no such reserve of good feelings from the public and the threat of impeachment was sufficient to result in his resignation. Does Obama possess a Clinton-like reserve of good will that will help him weather the storms that have come early in his second term?  We will find out.

Finally, there is the view that welcomes any and all Administration scandals regardless of party affiliation or political philosophy. This view holds that anything that causes gridlock in Congress, retards the inexorable march of more laws being enacted, and stops the eternal growth of Big Government is good for the nation. The real question is why so many two-term Presidencies start out with a bang and end with a whimper?