Let’s Run Old ’98: If you’re a top White House political aide, things look bleak for the 2014 mid-terms: slow recovery, stagnant wages, Obamacare distress, serial foreign policy humiliations and a sense that social change is maybe proceeding a bit too rapidly for universal voter comfort would seem to give Republicans an advantage in a relatively low-turnout election in which enthusiasm matters. A Republican Senate and lame-duckness looms.
What to do? Answer: Look back to the last Democratic president who faced this bleak prospect, Bill Clinton. In 1998, the GOP seemed poised to make huge gains in the mid-terms, thanks in large part to the Lewinsky sex scandal. Surely that would motivate the Republican base while disheartened Dems stayed home. Newt Gingrich predicted a gain of 10 to 40 seats. Sure, some people thought the GOP was pushing the scandal too far with talk of impeachment.** But they were out of touch with the American heartland!
The result–seared into my memory ( if not Byron York’s’!)–was a crushing disappointment for the GOP. The party actually lost 5 seats in the House. Gingrich resigned. All mainly because enough voters–a moderating majority– thought Republicans had gone overboard in pursuing the scandal. (The GOPs, like a stubborn kid faced with a reprimand, went ahead and impeached Clinton anyway, to little long term effect.)
Hmm. You think it could happen again? Could it be made to happen again? That’s certainly the question you’d be asking if you were a White House political aide. Anyone got a better strategy?
And so, a few months before the elections, a slew of emails about Benghazi suddenly appears. At least one is so inflammatory–it seems to confirm what the White House had denied–that it prompts Republicans to convene a select prosecutorial committee. So far so good! Now they’ll be pursuing the scandal for months, using it in direct mails, getting on TV, memeing it madly on the Web–all at the expense of emphasizing Obamacare and the economy, the issues voters care about most. Sure, the Benghazi inquiry might turn out the GOP base. But, as 1998 showed, the low-turnout, base-riling strategy is a potential loser–all Dems need is to get their disheartened partisans and those in the sullen middle disgusted enough with the scandal-mania to bother to vote.
I’m not suggesting the White House is intentionally provoking Republicans over Benghazi, the better to produce counterproductive overreach. OK, sorry. I’m totally suggesting the White House is intentionally provoking Republicans over Benghazi. It’s not like this is something the White House hasn’t been accused of before. Remember the “birther” controversy, where Obama delayed releasing his birth certificate for years as the conservative fringe wound themselves up in greater and greater knots of paranoia? ‘Look, what a bunch of crazies’ was Obama’s implicit message then. That may be his message again. Sure beats “The debate is over.”
The technical term for this maneuver, I believe, is “gaslighting.” The key to gaslighting, of course, is that you give your enemy a legitimate reason to go overboard. In what may be Maureen Dowd’s best column, she described how Bill Clinton successfully gaslighted Newt Gingrich by making him take a rear exit from Air Force One, sending him into a politically fatal public fit of egomanic complaint. It was arguably the turning point of Clinton’s presidency. The point wasn’t that Gingrich’s anger wasn’t unjustified–he was right, Dowd noted. Ordinarily, VIP guests leave by the front staircase:
“Mr. Gingrich was also right that the two most important Congressional officials should have left by the front door. But by letting himself be provoked into whining and scheming, he came across as hysterical. The Gaslight strategy was working.”
Similarly, Obama has given the GOP a legitimate beef regarding Benghazi, in big and little ways. We don’t know enough about what happened that night, and it sure smells like there was somethin’ funny going on. What was Ambassador Stevens doing there? Why was the attack on our consulate launched? Why didn’t Obama order a rescue effort during the multi-hour firefight–where the hell was he? If there was an order to stand down, who gave it? Why the robotic overemphasis on the imflammatory video? Surely Tom Donilon was up to something. Wasn’t the whole Libyan intervention, with its murderous and chaotic aftermath, a mistake in retrospect? Add in the inexcusable failure to hand over relevant emails–even now heavily redacted–plus all the declarations that there’s nothing left to discover, and it’s enough to drive you crazy. Enough to drive Republicans crazy, anyway. All going according to plan! The more legitimate the beef, the crazier they’ll get! The Clinton’s incessant lying about their private lives was enough to (legitimately) drive Republicans crazy too. But when they went crazy, they blew a layup election.
A “gaslighting” strategy would be a subtle variation of David Plouffe’s “stray voltage” gambit–under which the Obama White House provokes legitimate controversy, perhaps by releasing questionable, Pinocchio-baiting statistics (e.g. women earn 77 cents what men earn), in order to keep an issue in the public eye. Here the administration would provoke a controversy that’s so legitimate, and behave so maddeningly, that it distracts from issues the administration wants out of the public eye–all while it makes Republicans seem unappealing obsessed with the side issue.
Add in a gratuitous internecine bloodbath over immigration and Republicans will have all they need to blow the layup again.***
**– Unlike Speaker Boehner with Benghazi, Republicans in 1998 did not hold hearings on the Lewinsky scandal before the midterm election. But the Starr report on the scandal had been issued and there was a lot of impeachment talk.
***– It would be a greater achievement to blow this election, actually: In 1998 Clinton had a strong economy at his back–enough reason for many voters to defend him. In 2014 the Democrats have no similarly favorable economic undercurrent.