Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Issa Fizzle

One of the seemingly safe bets after the 2010 elections was that the Republican House would spend lots of time and energy chasing after Obama Administration scandals. I certainly thought that would happen. And I was wrong. There's been a bit, with Fast and Furious and with Solyndra, but nothing like the scandal-mongering of 1995-1996, not to mention the impeachment drama of 1998. So: why? I can think of two supply-side, and two demand-side, explanations.

Supply side #1: There are fewer scandals to investigate because the Obama people are unusually ethical and good at their jobs. I'm very skeptical of any such explanations. Sure, it's possible, but I tend to assume that there's always some scandal, somewhere. And at any rate, I'm fully confident that creative Members of Congress can invent one.

Supply side #2: The Obama White House is unusually competent and/or good at information management, and so no one is leaking stuff that could become a scandal. There's surely some of that, at least compared with the initial Bill Clinton WH. Still, again, I lean more towards demand-side explanations.

Demand side #1: There's something about Issa. Perhaps Oversight and Government Reform Chair Darrell Issa is simply not very good at it. There seems to be a bit to that, but I don't think it's a sufficient explanation, because other committees could certainly step in and hold hearings on their own scandals if Issa wasn't doing it. 

Demand side #2: Totally, totally, speculative, but here goes. Perhaps the reason that the House isn't manufacturing scandals is because the changed media environment has changed the incentives. In the old days, opposite-party Congresses had to work hard to manufacture scandals good enough to get the neutral press to notice. Now, why bother? Most partisans, and especially the primary voters that Members of Congress are increasingly most worried about, get most of their news from the partisan press, and they don't need any Congressional stamp of authority to consider something a legitimate scandal worthy of devoting hours of programming to. 

I suspect it's #4. How could we tell? I'm not going to do it, but what someone could do is to monitor the partisan press (Rush Limbaugh, Fox News programming, and on the other side Rachel Maddow's show, the liberal blogs) and see to what extent their focus on scandals is related to NYT-certified scandals. Or, we could test awareness of scandal stories by party identification, or by media consumption, and see if it changed over time, with much bigger gaps now. I don't follow public opinion research closely enough to know if anyone has done that over time..I know there's some Pew stuff going back a ways, but I'm not aware of any comparison to the 1990s or 1980s or earlier.

If it doesn't seem to matter to the partisan press whether the rest of the media is paying attention or not -- or if they're even more dedicated to it if everyone else is ignoring whatever they're on about -- then that's a very different world than one in which they sit back and wait for a "real" scandal to emerge. And it's a world in which Congressional hearings, which tend to force the Times and the rest of the neutral press to notice, just don't matter as much. 

Now, even in that world there's still a strong incentive for individual Members of Congress to hold high-profile hearings, because they want the publicity. But there's a lot less incentive for partisans in Congress as a whole to push for it, and so if one committee chair is underperforming no one is going to care very much. 

So my guess is that it's about the partisan press and changed incentives. But again, it's really just a guess.


  1. #5- Also demand side- is that a scandal isn't necessarily NEEDED to damage Obama right now. The economy has done the hard work of dragging down Obama's popularity. Perhaps not enough to make Republican victory guaranteed, but enough that if any of the other possibilities are somewhat true, the cost/benefit analysis is out of whack. If Obama's already at 44% approval, and a scandal is only going to bring him down to 42%, is that worth the concerted effort needed to bring it out?

  2. Doesn't the fact that Issa loudly announced in the beginning that he was going to hold numerous investigations argue against the notion that he doesn't consider them advantageous or necessary?

  3. There is also the possibility that Issa isn't what the MSM tends to make him sound like. I have had a hard time always putting together the man who comes onto Bill Maher fairly regularly and not only doesn't sound unfair but also is funny at times, melding that person with the one I read will do all this nasty attack stuff. Maybe he's more the former than the latter and really did want to be fair. *shock*

  4. Maybe he's more the former than the latter and really did want to be fair.

    Kevin Drum raises the same possibility.

    Personally, I'm inclined to go with the supply-side explanations. No administration is scandal-free, but that doesn't mean some aren't more ethical and competent than others. It just doesn't make sense for Issa to ignore potential scandals, no matter how much damage has been done to Obama by the economy. (By the way, contra Colby, tamping down Obama's support 2 percentage points would be a HUGE deal--the election might turn on it).

    On the other hand, it wouldn't surprise me if Issa doesn't want to waste his time with trifling, petty stuff---if trifling, petty stuff is all he and his staff can find.

    And I don't buy the "changing incentives" explanation because the incentives remain exactly the same with respect to the non-Fox-News-watching segment of the electorate. That segment is still susceptible to being influenced by a legitimate-sounding investigation into the Obama administration, in a way that right-wingers are not. Why would Issa deliberately give up on persuading those people?

  5. Especially, Andrew, when those are the ones who are needed to defeat Obama.

    But the changing incentives explanation is the only one, I think, that has the ring of truth and sufficient explanatory power. I don't think Issa, no matter how fairminded, would be able to hold back by himself on pushing scandals, if it was considered fruitful.

    Maybe it's a bit of everything, and therefore none seem to quite do all of what it takes to explain it.

  6. the only one, I think, that has the ring of truth and sufficient explanatory power

    Why doesn't option #1 ring true? You know, the one that says Issa simply can't find anything important to complain about?

    I mean, have we become so cynical that we just cannot possibly believe an administration could perform its duties without serious ethical and legal lapses?

  7. We're overlooking the obvious here. Issa has a very checkered past -- narrowly escaped going down for grand theft auto at one point, if I remember -- and it's possible that someone's got something on him and has threatened to go public with it if he doesn't pipe down. Not Obama or the WH themselves, probably, but perhaps one of their outside supporters, one who moved in Issa's circles at one time.

    This theory would explain why he promised lots of investigations and hasn't followed through -- maybe he got a phone call after that and it changed his mind. We still need the other explanations to account for lack of pressure from his colleagues, but it could be that the Republicans are learning that you damage yourself if you give the chairmanship of Gov't Oversight to a crook.

  8. What's the null hypothesis? Let's not forget the political science on this. Mayhew's Divided We Govern looked at major investigations. Essentially, there is no difference between divided and unified government. In either case, the opposition party will push to investigate things when it looks like they might be able to embarass the Prez; their ability to do so is only slightly higher in divided government (ie, when they are committee chairs). Why? Because in order to pursue a witch hunt, they need the support of the committee as a whole and they need some grist for the mill. If nobody will care about a "scandal," then it isn't a scandal.

    So, why aren't there more incentives as polarization has increased, and committee have become more partisan? JB says media loops reduce the incentives. I think that you could also add that it's an arms race, as well. Every scandal that happens in the modern era is yet another example to an administration to avoid getting caught up in one. Yes, Repubs are digging deeper. But Fox News was around in 2009-2010 as well, and would have championed _-gate then as well. So, Obama's folks have been minding their p's and q's the whole time. And while Bush may have had Fox on his side, he certainly didn't have MSNBC or the interwebs, and a scandal there would have been carried in the liberal info loop long enough to penetrate the general info loop (leading Congress to hold hearings, even if it was 2001-2006)

    Everyday oversight is a VERY different matter, as the GOP demonstrated in 2001-2006. There's just no public pressure to hold police patrol hearings. But the biggies? Those are mostly supply-driven, and supply is responding to demand.

  9. I don't strongly disagree with any of the options (or combinations of them) but I'll throw in a further speculative hypothesis (not mutually exclusive with others). People want Congress and WH to work together to create jobs. Stories about Congressmembers dilly-dallying about oversight issues just simply won't get people riled up. It would dovetail with complaints about intra-institutional bickering and obstructionism. They've already heard this one.

    Everybody thinks all politicians are corrupt. There are many stories about individual cases (e.g. Tom DeLay, Maxine Waters, insider trading, etc.) And, after all, there was a concerted effort to drum up outrage (perhaps justifiedly, for all I know) about Solyndra and Fast and Furious but it didn't amount to all that much. Most people, unlike Beltway insiders, just don't want to hear about internal Washington power struggles. They want progress on an issue they care about, not more bickering at one another.

    All that being said, if a sex scandal would come to light, all bets would be off(cf. Weinergate)...

  10. The mainstream media is lefty, and it ain't gonna cover Obama's scandals. Duh.

    Justice Department internationally trafficking illegal firearms, and a federal agent winds up shot to death as a result, with follow on cover up and hiding from Congress, submitting false and misleading testimony and documentation? Count on the lefty media burying all of it.

    One of Obama's campaign contributors stealing a $1/2B out of Porkulus coffers? Count on the lefty media burying that, too. Hey, it ain't Bush, Enron and "Kenny Boy" (no taxpayer cash in play), which obviously had to be made a media firestorm and connected to Bush.

    But my guess is, the lefty media can't keep all that hidden from the Independent voters, who do or will know all about Fast and Furious, and Solyndra. The legacy media's influence is in decline, slowly, slowly.

  11. Yeah, just like the lefty media covered up all of Clinton's scandals.


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