Friday, June 28, 2013

Fake Presidential Scandals, Then and Now

Paul Krugman suggests an explanation for why the Clinton-era fake scandals kept on going, while similar efforts to build fake scandals involving the Obama Administration seem to be fizzling:
Maybe the news media have actually learned something; maybe they’re effectively disciplined, this time around, by the blogosphere. Anyway, the narrative of a scandal-ridden presidency seems to be evaporating as we speak.
I don't credit the media or blogosphere. I think there are two important distinctions, one relating to the Presidents themselves and the other relating to the scandals.

First, the Clintons had a history of engaging in activity that, although never determined to be anything but lawful, didn't always pass the smell test. The remarkable success of Hillary Clinton's one-type foray into commodities trading, for example, continues to strike me as the sort of investment opportunity that would not have been made available to her were she not the governor's wife. At the same time many of the accusations made against the Clintons were truly unfair, and one of Mike Huckabee's most tragic decisions as governor may have its roots in his acceptance of a ridiculous conspiracy theory.

I don't want to discount the role of public perception, or the media's role in building and perpetuating public perception. But in no small part Clinton himself fed the public perception that was willing to play fast and loose with the facts - his claim that he never broke the drug laws of the United States, that he did not have 'sexual relations' with 'that woman', "it depends on what the definition of 'is' is", etc. - so while "slick Willie" may have been something of a caricature Clinton himself kept throwing fuel on the fire.

In contrast, although various efforts have been made to suggest that Obama is guilty by association for his relationship with Tony Rezko, or "pals around with terrorists" because of his relationship with William Ayers, the overall picture is pretty clear: President Obama has spent his adult life conspicuously avoiding anything that smacks of corruption. While certain right-wing partisans nonetheless scream from the top of their lungs that the Obama Administration is "the most corrupt ever", the facts say pretty much the opposite.

In fairness, that distinction could affect the media - covering a fake Clinton scandal was likely to turn up a colorful character or two, a colorful statement from the President, and perhaps just enough smoke to justify the coverage. Some of the allegation were so absurd ("Clinton murdered Vince Foster") that, even if not taken seriously, they were frequently referenced by those who most hated Clinton (and thus did not particularly care if the allegation was credible) and his supporters (who could use that type of allegation to depict Clinton's attackers, sometimes quite accurately, as loonies). There's no excitement in chasing a typical fake Obama scandals. The only person who can maintain enthusiasm about trying to concoct a direct connection between the actions of some low-level IRS agents and the President seems to be Darrell Issa.

Second, as I just intimated, the Obama scandals are largely boring. The Republicans got quite a bit of mileage out of Benghazi because it involved conspicuous violence and some tragic deaths, but they've run out of "revelations" so the media and public are losing interest. Ken Starr knew how to build a rolling scandal - "Nothing to Whitewater? Then how about we look under these other stones to see what we find." That only works, though, if you find stones that you can turn over, and that scandal seems to be fresh out of stones.

The IRS non-scandal is boring. Complaining that the President was spying on Americans only goes so far when half of the Republican Party is asserting that the present NSA program is a vindication of Bush, and various fire-breathing Republicans (including Michele Bachmann, Steven King, Jeff Flake and Ted Cruz) as well as various Republican "older statesmen" (including Orrin Hatch, Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss) knew exactly what was happening and did not lift a finger to stop the programs. While you do see somewhat comical statements from people like Jim Sensenbrenner ("Whodathunk the USA PATRIOT Act could be used to support this type of monitoring?") the Republicans are at a disadvantage - their most prominent spokespersons knew about the monitoring, did nothing to stop it, and even now have no intention of doing anything to significantly curtail it. "It's horrible that the Obama Administration did this thing that we knew about, didn't stop, and are allowing to continue."

Further, although it's easy enough to engage in fiery rhetoric about how the programs "were illegal" when you actually start looking into the law the discussion becomes rather arcane and the Administration's position starts to look like it was narrowly tailored to fit within established law and precedent. It's the sort of argument that only a lawyer could love, in part because it's somewhat arcane, and in part because if you're not a lawyer or a close follower of the Supreme Court you're unlikely to have the context to participate in a debate and (because you are likely to find it boring) even if you can find a media account that attempts to explain the background in understandable terms you're unlikely to read it. So it devolves into a series of exchanges in which each side pounds the table for a while, with anti-monitoring activists refusing to acknowledge the legal framework for the monitoring, and Administration defenders asserting the lawful nature of the program while avoiding the implications of such programs, until people lose interest.

There's a media angle to that, as well, in that the media wants to generate readers and viewers, and you don't draw an audience by boring them. But that's less a matter of having learned from past mistakes and becoming more disciplined, and more a matter of being less concerned with the story than with its appeal to the masses. A responsible media might bore us a bit with the legal stuff, then engage in a debate over the margins of privacy, how we can protect and value privacy in the modern era, and how to balance privacy and security. If you looked hard enough you could find that sort of discussion back in the Clinton era and you can find it now - but it's not the sort of information the mainstream media actively promotes so you can expect to have to work to find it.

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