I was on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show last night, talking about the Benghazi talking point emails. Near the end of the segment, Hugh asked whether I thought the presidential election might have turned out differently if Obama and Clinton had not succeeded in covering up the truth about Benghazi. I was skeptical. The story of the election, I said, was the Obama campaign’s ability to turn out, once again, a large majority of the low-information voters who swept Obama into office in 2008. Few of those low-information voters, I said, would either have understood, or cared about, Benghazi, even if all the facts had been available.
Which is true, I think, as far as it goes. But what if all of the current Obama scandals had broken last fall? What if voters not only knew the truth about Benghazi–that four Americans were killed by al Qaeda because the Obama administration ignored repeated warnings from the CIA, refused the ambassador’s pleas for better security, and failed even to try to rescue them once they came under attack–but also knew that the IRS had been commissioned to harass the administration’s political opponents? And what if, in addition, reporters knew about DOJ’s surveillance of the Associated Press?
We know that the administration fought feverishly to prevent the truth about Benghazi from coming out until after the election. That is what the notorious talking points, Susan Rice’s tour of the TV news shows, and Obama’s and Clinton’s endless references to the phantom video were all about. We also know that the IRS’s improper activities were well known at the upper reaches of the IRS as well as the Treasury Department–and, it is fair to assume, at the White House–well before the election. Yet numerous officials conspired to keep the scandal quiet until the election was safely past, and at least one IRS employee seems rather clearly to have committed perjury to keep the scandal from coming to the attention of voters. As for the AP surveillance, I still don’t understand the legal context of the incident, and I doubt that many voters would have been swayed by the apparently legal, but unprecedented, surveillance of reporters. But what if reporters had been angry enough over the administration’s double-cross (as they might reasonably see it) that their coverage of the campaign’s closing weeks had been less slavishly pro-Obama? Might these factors, together, have made a difference?
I still don’t think the result would have been different. To an extraordinary degree, the 2012 electorate seemed uninterested in the Obama administration’s failures. If voters didn’t care about the economy or about $16 trillion in debt, why would they have cared about Benghazi or the IRS? But the cumulative effect of multiple, mutually reinforcing scandals is hard to predict. It is easy to understand why, last fall, the Obama administration didn’t want to take any chances. They went into full cover-up mode, and carried off their multiple cover-ups successfully. Without doubt, that effort helped to bring about the president’s re-election.
The analogy to 1972 is obvious. Richard Nixon managed to keep the lid on Watergate long enough to enjoy one of the most sweeping electoral victories in American history. After the election, however, his cover-up unraveled; it consumed, and eventually destroyed, his second term. Whether the same will happen to Obama remains to be seen, but already it is clear that scandal will be a major part of the Obama legacy.