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."
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