There Are Plenty of Scandals, Just Not These Ones

There’s a familiar template for the “scandals” that have so far “plagued” the Obama administration, in that they are all, for the most part, total bullshit and/or unfortunate events in the vast federal bureaucracy that have as much to do with the guy actually sitting in the Oval Office as how the busses are running on the north side of Chicago. We’ll start with the first two that were supposedly going to be “worse than Watergate.”

Solyndra This was supposedly a case of a corrupt administration steering taxpayer money to a doomed solar manufacturer. In a case of hilarious displacement, given that previous Republican administrations have unashamedly flooded the pockets of the fossil fuel industry, conservatives convinced themselves the same was happening with Democrats and this solar company that lost the government the equivalent of a copper-shaving from a penny. In reality, some of the grants and loan guarantees from the stimulus didn’t pan out, others did, and still others from a program called ARPA-E may someday change the world. Overall the Department of Energy’s loan program was a success, no wrong-doing whatsoever was overturned by endless Republican investigations (the real waste of taxpayer dollars), and it turned out Solyndra failed because the price of solar panels keeps dropping as that technology becomes cheaper and more successful. The real story is not that solar is a bust but that it’s becoming the most promising energy technology since the discovery of petroleum.

Fast and Furious This was the gun-running scandal in which, supposedly, the ATF trafficked guns across the Mexican border, which ended up killing an American DEA agent. The media horrifically misreported this story until Fortune Magazine’s Katherine Eban wrote a bombshell piece of investigative journalism called “The Truth About the Fast and Furious Scandal.” In the article she lays out that the ATF was never in the business of “walking” guns over the border. In fact, they were trying to intercept them by tracking the gunwalkers. Unfortunately Arizona gun laws are so “Mad Max”-f***ing crazy that the ATF basically has no power to stop anyone doing anything with firearms. The Arizona Republicans are inadvertently doing the bidding of Mexican drug cartels, who give straw purchasers gobs amounts of money to purchase insane numbers of guns in America’s Toys ‘R Us of personal weapons. You know, there was a president who did illegally sell guns to right-wing murder squads, though. Went by the name of Ronnie Reagan.

Benghazi The sheer incoherence of what Republicans actually think the Obama administration did following the attack against the American embassy and the death Ambassador Christopher Stevens is basically all you need to know about this one. Now we’re down to a scandal about some revisions of talking points. As far as I can tell from my favorite conservative blogs, they think the Obama administration wanted to cover up the terrorist nature of the attack and blame it on that insulting video so… he could… um, win re-election? Is that it? You think the administration wanted to keep under wraps the CIA, every reporter on the planet, and the group that claimed responsibility for the attack until after the election? Sure, I guess that’s possible. It would be the stupidest, most pointless thing to ever attempt cover-up ever, but sure, whatever you say. Or—OR!—here’s a wild thought: a tragic attack occurred, there was initial confusion about who was responsible, the administration found out who was responsible, they talked openly a few days later about the terrorist group responsible, and then conservative media found out the word “Benghazi” was good enough to keep their mindless readers and viewers with a full chubby.

• The IRS Yes, it would be appalling if, like Richard Nixon, the Obama administration used the IRS to target political opponents. Luckily, that is not even remotely what happened. Here’s what did: there were some IRS workers in Cincinnati who needed a way to sort through a huge burst of applications for 501(c) (4) status, and they chose to use political buzzwords. This included Tea Party groups, but progressive groups also come in for similar scrutiny and last year one progressive group even got its status revoked. Their immediate supervisors found out about the practice, and told them to cut it out. They continued to use their criteria anyway, and then they got told to cut it out again, and they did. That’s the whole story. Higher-ups in the IRS didn’t even know about it, let alone the executive office. So the conspiracy theory, if I might summarize, is that the President’s political team, at his behest, got in touch with a group of frontline IRS workers in Cincy and told them to force Tea Party groups to fill out some extra paperwork. Pretty nefarious. And if they were rejected for 501(c) (4) status, they would—gasp—not be able to funnel money from vested corporate interests to influence political outcomes. The real scandal here is the 501(c) (4) itself, which is supposed to have a social welfare mission, but which is actually an overtly political vehicle that people like Karl Rove, the Koch brothers, and other puppet masters use to flood elections with money. They’re one of the instruments Stephen Colbert spent a year delving into his Pulitzer-worthy look at SuperPacs and federal election law. What’s gone totally unreported is that all of these groups that got singled out are almost certainly in violation of the nebulous, incredibly vague laws that have turned the post-Citizens United campaign finance system into a dystopian farce.

• The AP This one actually does bother me, but as with all of these, the President of the United States—based on everything that’s been reported—had zero to do with it. Eric Holder’s Justice Department began a leak investigation because the Republicans in Congress were shrieking about this particular leak. Then the investigation subpoenaed some AP phone records without telling the AP. It’s unclear if Holder knew about this, but that’s definitely worth finding out. If he acted inappropriately, then he should go (I think it’s also worth noting that this leak had to do with an undercover operative who’d infiltrated an al-Qaeda cell in Yemen, and who could have been killed had the AP gone forward with the story before that operative could be retrieved—very cloak and dagger and ethically murky). Again, this can’t really be called a scandal per se, because everything the DOJ did is entirely legal. In our post-9/11 fugue you’ll remember that laws don't actually protect any vestige of your privacy anyway, and even if we could turn back the time on the national security state erected after those attacks, the same people who’ve suddenly discovered their inner civil libertarians at a politically convenient time would start shrieking about how we need to wire-tap everyone the next time a couple of pissant losers blow something up in public. The real scandal here is the rather nutty system of permanent surveillance and unlimited spying power that the government has erected in the past decade in the name of counter-terrorism. The irony is also that Obama is the one who’s long supported the Media Shield Act, which would actually make stuff like this illegal. Guess which faction of hypocritical wangs oppose it?

There’s the old journalism adage that no one reports on cats not stuck in trees. The political media feeds on pre-conceived narratives and the conservative media has figured out how to juice the mainstream media into talking about what it wants to talk about. It has also figured out that people are generally lazy and won’t bother to read past a headline. All of the stuff I just talked about in those bullet points isn’t my silly liberal Obamabot opinion; these are all reported facts that are easily accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Granted, most of us are using that internet connection to look at sports scores, porn, and celebrity gossip.

One need only look back to the Clinton era, when House Republicans spent six years and millions of dollars on a fishing expedition that eventually turned up a blowjob. We’ve all seen this movie before. It was almost entirely political wishful thinking and hot air that eventually dug up enough dirt to find a reason—any reason—to try to impeach Clinton. Now we have similar hot air and wishful thinking, the only difference being that nothing of substance has actually turned up.

To be clear, it’s not that I think the Obama administration is shiny and flawless. In fact, there’s clearly a massive scandal at the heart of its foreign policy thinking, which has turned the bombastic Bush-era “War on Terror” into a covert war, which mostly evades the headlines and which most Americans are happy not to think about. Drones and Seal Teams are regularly dispatched across the Middle East and Africa for a whole variety of reasons, including rescuing American aid workers from pirates and occasionally killing children and pregnant women. There’s virtually no public oversight of any of this, there’s evidence that it’s creating great hostility among people who were already not super pleased with us, and mainstream reporting has been woeful at best. Republicans don’t want to have that conversation because they entirely agree and want to start more hot wars in Syria and Iran.

But sure, there are plenty of scandals. Did you hear that a graduate student found a major flaw in a seminal paper by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, which (further) discredits current conservative economic theory? How about that the military has all but admitted that there's a pervasive culture of rape within its ranks? That we’re all suffering under austerity forced upon us by an idiot faction of cranks called the House Republicans (who actually got fewer total votes in the last election) even though the last thread of their argument just snapped rather dramatically? Or what about that atmospheric carbon has hit 400 ppm, and we’re basically running out of time to keep the planet habitable for life as we know it

Ezra Klein put it best when he wrote, “When future generations look back on the scandals of our age, it’ll be the unchecked rise in global temperatures, not the Benghazi talking points, that infuriate them.”

We have plenty of actual scandals, they’re just not anything people are paying attention to.