It’s decision time for Republicans.
After a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week and a half for the Obama administration in which scandals implicated the IRS, Departments of Justice and State Department, Republicans will get the chance to respond. The initial outrage is pretty much over, and the question now is how to move forward.
Hearings, firings, and possible prosecutions are pretty much a certainty at this point. Some have already happened. But how will Republicans frame the issue? Is it corruption from the Obama administration or just the way big government always behaves?
In other words, do Republicans want triumph in a single battle, or do they want a victory in the war of ideas?
Let’s be honest, President Obama is a temporary commodity at this point for both parties. Barring an epic meltdown from Republicans, they will probably maintain control of the House and have a chance at retaking the Senate in 2014. Obama isn’t going to have a Democrat-controlled Congress.
Beyond that, he’s pretty much irrelevant already. Think about it.
During the fiscal cliff negotiations, his vice president was the one to broker the deal. Things progressed when Obama left the room.
Obama’s push for gun control failed miserably. How miserably? Even Democrats defected on the Senate vote, denying the president a legislative success in a chamber his party controls and the ability to credibly attack Republicans for blocking the bill.
The congressional leaders working on the immigration overhaul have asked him to stay away for fear that his presence will scuttle a potential compromise.
Republicans can pile on and lower the president’s approval rating before he leaves office if they want. But that allows Democrats to argue the problem was Obama, and not the bigger government mentality that he championed.
President Gerald Ford once said, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” A few years later, Ronald Reagan made the point so well it stuck for more than 20 years. Even when Bill Clinton finally returned Democratic Party control to the White House, he was forced to declare “the era of big government is over.”
Obama’s victory, especially in the re-election campaign, was largely a repudiation of that doctrine. Politico explains, “For five years, this president has been making the case that a growing and activist government has good intentions and can carry these intentions out with competence.”
Republicans would be wise to avoid getting vindictive toward the president, and, instead, construct these incidents into a larger narrative about what happens when government is given more power. This would allow them to treat the president as a good man, in accordance with most public polls on the subject, while explaining that his entire philosophy on government is flawed.
Focusing on his political philosophy would allow the GOP to bring back some other lowlights from the Obama administration and other large government failures. They could even bring in examples like Mayor Michael Bloomberg from New York City, whose over 16 ounce soda ban earned national ridicule. A court in his own jurisdiction threw that ban out, arguing that it was “arbitrary and capricious.”
Democrats are already seeing this concern and attempting to prevent this argument.
Jon Stewart reacted to the IRS news with some phrases we can’t print, but then he changed his usual script. Rather than spending the next few minutes showing how Republicans are worse than Democrats, which is his normal routine following a Democratic party scandal, Stewart turned to an example of how scandals undercut the government’s credibility. “This is what makes all that IRS and Benghazi and VA stuff so frustrating. Because we can do better,” Stewart said. “This (IRS scandal) has, in one seismic moment, shifted the burden of proof from the tin foil behatted to the government.”
Other pundits explained the problem even more succinctly.
“The Obama administration is doing a far better job making the case for conservatism than Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, or John Boehner ever did,” John Dickerson wrote at Slate. “When the government overreaches in so many ways it gives support to the conservative argument about the inherently rapacious nature of government.”
If Republicans choose to make the argument that these scandals are the result of big government, rather than just a quirk of the current president, they can reverse negative momentum in the war of ideas.
As a bonus, they can expect more Democrats than just Jon Stewart will be happy to trash the president in an effort to save their ideology.