Back in May, Brendan Nyhan used historical and statistical analysis to presciently conclude that for the hitherto untainted Obama White House, "the first Obama scandal is likely to arrive sooner than most people think." Now, the dual imbroglios over the $535 million loan lost to bankrupt Solyndra and the ATF's ill-conceived "Fast and Furious" gun-walking operation have Republicans targeting the President and his Attorney General, Eric Holder.
While the twin dust ups, each with roots in the Bush Administration, may ultimately reveal only bureaucratic bungling, poor judgment and taxpayer investments gone bad, Republicans are salivating at the prospect of manufacturing scandals just in time for President Obama's reelection. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa called the Solyndra case "salacious" and "a story of political interference" on behalf of "people giving to President Obama's campaign." Meanwhile, as House Republicans called for a special prosecutor to investigate Fast and Furious, grandstanding Arizona Sheriff Paul Babeu declared, "I believe that this is a much larger scandal than what took place in Watergate."
Perception often trumps reality when it comes to presidential scandals. Of course, if the accusations are actually true, the political damage will (and should) be worse. Worse, but not necessarily fatal.
Just ask those masters of scandal survival from the Bush White House.
Here are just some of the Republican scandal management tips for President Obama:
It's the "Criminalization of Politics." Ever since President George H.W. Bush first used it during the Iran/Contra scandal, Republicans and their conservative amen corner have routinely brushed off charges of their own corruption and lawlessness by accusing their opponents of "criminalizing politics." From Iran-Contra, Plamegate and Tom Delay to the U.S. attorneys purge and the Bush regime of detainee torture, Republicans survived their endless scandals by instead successfully politicizing crime.
Sadly, Attorney General Eric Holder is already quite familiar with the GOP's tried and untrue "criminalization of politics" sound bite. During his confirmation hearings in January 2009, Holder reassured Republican Senators the Obama administration would not prosecute the architects of the Bush detainee torture program:
"I think President-elect Obama has said it well. We don't want to criminalize policy differences that might exist between the outgoing administration and the administration that is about to take over. We certainly don't want to do that."
Four Words: "I Don't Recall Remembering." In a letter to Congress this week, Attorney General Holder pointed out that "I now understand some senior officials within the Department were aware at the time there was an operation called Fast and Furious although they were not advised of the unacceptable operational tactics being used in it." Then in words only a Republican could love, Holder explained how he remained unaware of the program's details until this summer:
"My testimony was truthful and accurate and I have been consistent on this point throughout. I have no recollection of knowing about Fast and Furious prior to the public controversy about it."
If the "no recollection" formula sounds familiar, it should. Then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales perfected it to the point of comedy during hearings about the Bush administration's politically-motivated prosecutors purge. Gonzales, who almost surely lied to Congress at least three times about the NSA domestic surveillance program, the Bush torture program as well as the U.S. attorneys scandal, reached new heights of selective amnesia in April 2007. As Dana Milbank recalled:
Explaining his role in the botched firing of federal prosecutors, Gonzales uttered the phrase "I don't recall" and its variants ("I have no recollection," "I have no memory") 64 times. Along the way, his answer became so routine that a Marine in the crowd put down his poster protesting the Iraq war and replaced it with a running "I don't recall" tally.
If he finds himself in a pinch during his next appearance before Congress, Eric Holder can always quote Alberto Gonzales:
"Senator, that I don't recall remembering."
Say You Only Read the Title. During his press conference last week, President Obama expressed support for his Attorney General in light of the Gunwalker operation gone bad, pointing out that "I think both he and I would have been very unhappy if somebody had suggested that guns were allowed to pass through that could have been prevented by the United States of America." For his part, Holder explained to Congress how he could have remained in the dark. While he was sent received memos on Fast and Furious, they are "actually provided to and reviewed by members of my staff and the staff of the Office of the Deputy Attorney General."
Of course, Holder could have just copied the gambit Condoleezza Rice used before the 9/11 Commission and admit he only read the titles. Rice explained her knowledge of the infamous August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) which warned President Bush and his national security team about Al Qaeda attacks against the American homeland:
"I believe the title was 'Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.'"
Besides, as President Bush himself noted, having received a briefing does not constitute a need to act on it. As Bush responded to the CIA briefer who presented the Bin Laden PDB to him:
"All right. You've covered your ass, now."
Promise to Fire Any Wrongdoers. President Obama could take another page from George W. Bush by promising to fire anyone involved with the budding scandals.
After covert CIA operative Valerie Plame was outed by his administration as payback for her husband Joe Wilson's revelations about uranium in Niger, President Bush repeatedly pledged to fire any official found to be involved. Of course, just a week after declaring "If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action," Bush on October 7, 2003 revealingly admitted that "I don't know if we're going to find out the senior administration official."
Ultimately, of course, Scooter Libby, Karl Rove and Richard Armitage were never fired. And when Libby was convicted for obstruction of justice, Bush commuted his sentence. It only cost him the services of Scott McClellan and the ire of Dick Cheney.
As for Valerie Plame, Darrell Issa, the GOP's grand inquisitor in both the Solyndra and Fast & Furious probes, accused her of perjury.
Blame the Software. Of course, Darrell Issa is always full of good ideas for avoiding scandals. Now that Republicans are demanding White House Solyndra emails and even Obama's Blackberry messages, the President could borrow one or two.
For example, the Obama White House could just claim they lost the emails. This gambit worked wonders for the Bush administration, whose staffers used RNC accounts to skirt Freedom of Information Act and Presidential Records Act requirements. Or when push comes to shove, just blame the software for magically destroying the emails in question.
Committed to defending Bush administration wrong-doing at every turn, Darrell Issa in February 2008 weighed in on the White House's destruction of millions of emails. Now a car jacker turned self-proclaimed IT expert, Issa claimed that the potentially criminal loss of the emails, including those for critical time periods such as the breaking PlameGate scandal, was just the result of a software glitch.
Mother Jones described Issa's feeble attempt to blame IBM's Lotus Notes software then used by the Bush White House, an accusation he was later forced to recant:
Defending the White House's decision to switch from the Lotus Notes-based archiving system used by the Clinton administration, Issa compared the software to "using wooden wagon wheels" and Sony Betamax tapes. To observers of the missing emails controversy, Issa's comments seemed little more than an attempt to deflect blame from the White House for replacing a working system for archiving presidential records with an ad hoc substitute. But to IT professionals who use Lotus at their companies, Issa's remarks seemed controversial, if not downright slanderous. Now, according to an executive at IBM, the software's manufacturer, the California congressman has apologized for his characterization of Lotus and offered to correct the congressional record.
Blame Dick Cheney and the Supreme Court. For weeks, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera has been writing that the Solyndra episode is a "phony scandal." That debacle is just one of the casualties of a program aimed at "moving alternative energy innovations to full-scale development." As President Obama put it last week, "for every success there may be one that does not work out as well. But that's exactly what the loan guarantee program was designed by Congress to do."
Of course, Obama could have taken Dick Cheney's approach and said the behind the scenes deliberations of the administration's energy policy are nobody's business but his own.
The details of dozens of meetings Cheney held with his secret energy task force in 2001 must remain secret, his office said, to protect "the constitutional right of the president and vice president to obtain information in confidentiality." The U.S. Supreme Court, including Cheney's frequent (though not as yet shot in the face) hunting companion Antonin Scalia, agreed.
Claim "Nobody Could Have Expected It." If there's anything Barack Obama should have learned from his predecessor, it's that whatever foreseeable disaster engulfs the White House, "nobody could have expected it." After all, who could have known Mexican cartels would use the massive firepower they bought in the United States or that an alternative energy investment could fail?
From 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina to the post-invasion chaos in Iraq and the financial meltdown of 2008, President Bush and his minions insisted "nobody could have predicted" the fiasco which unsurprisingly ensued:
"I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile. All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking." (Condoleezza Rice, on the 9/11 attacks, 2002)
"Think what's happened in our cities when we've had riots, and problems, and looting. Stuff happens!...Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things, and that's what's going to happen here." (Donald Rumsfeld, on rioting in Iraq, 2003)
"Had we had to do it [the invasion of Iraq] over again, we would look at the consequences of catastrophic success - being so successful so fast that an enemy that should have surrendered or been done in escaped and lived to fight another day." (President Bush, on the growing insurgency in Iraq, 2004)
"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm." (President Bush, on Hurricane Katrina and the drowning of New Orleans, 2005)
"I've asked why nobody saw it coming. It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse." (Condoleezza Rice, on the triumph of Hamas in Palestinian elections, 2006)
"No, obviously, I wouldn't have predicted that. On the other hand I wouldn't have predicted 9/11, the global war on terror, the need to simultaneous run military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq or the near collapse of the financial system on a global basis, not just the U.S." (Dick Cheney, on the economic calamity of 2008, in 2009)
Blame the Blame Game. If all else fails, President Obama should just trot press secretary Jay Carney to announce that he won't play the "blame game." President Bush's turncoat PR flack Scott McClellan can explain how it works.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)