Rejecting tax-exempt status for conservative groups. Using the agency responsible for tax collection and tax law enforcement as an ideological arm of the government. Obtaining telephone records of Associated Press and Fox News reporters and editors. Altering accounts of the circumstances surrounding the death of American diplomats in Libya.
That's a lot to digest for the Washington cognoscenti, let alone readers in Topeka and Toronto. Democrats are claiming that it's mostly routine stuff, nothing to worry about, and that it will all disappear by midsummer. Republicans are claiming that it's extraordinary, all symbolic of Barack Obama's arrogance and incompetence, and that punishment, if not impeachment, is in order.
What to make of all this? Not much, if you're a partisan of Mr. Obama. A whole lot, if you're not. But to the rest of us who are possessed with uncertainties rather than partisan certainty, here's a viewer's guide to what the shouting is all about:
How important is all of this?
Pretty important, the disavowals of the Obama crowd notwithstanding. The U.S. tax system is based on issues of trust. One of them is that it's blind to ideology, with a sense of fairness overlaying all of the activities of the Internal Revenue Service, an agency that has all the public loyalty and support of the Canada Revenue Agency – which is to say none.
Moreover, even the biggest press haters in the U.S. think the Obama administration may have gone too far in its offensive against The Associated Press and a Fox News reporter. As for the controversy over the 2012 attack against American diplomats in Benghazi, Republicans have been beating this drum for months, and Team Obama has been unable to change the tune.
None of these items is a small thing. The combination of them is a large threat to the President's second term.
What are the risks for Mr. Obama?
Substantial. So far, his administration has been remarkably free of scandal; few administrations since Calvin Coolidge's (1923-1929) have been so clean, and even his wasn't spotless. So this is new territory for the President, and for the press that covers him – a press that itself is a victim of Justice Department actions. So expect no benefits of the doubt from that quarter.
One caveat: No modern president save Dwight Eisenhower – indeed, almost no president in U.S. history – has had an easy second term. Franklin Roosevelt was repudiated in his effort to pack the Supreme Court, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton faced impeachment efforts, and Ronald Reagan stumbled in the Iran-Contra affair that loomed so large in 1986 and 1987, even though hardly anyone alive can accurately summarize it now in 2013. Mr. Obama may be different from his predecessors in fundamental ways, but not in this one.
What are the risks for the Republicans?
Parties that smell blood oftentimes get intoxicated by it. There's broad agreement that the Republicans overreached in 1998 by impeaching Mr. Clinton, largely for charges growing out of an affair with a White House intern. Cool heads within the GOP are urging caution, recognizing that a party that lost the presidency two elections in a row and that faces substantial and stubborn policy and demographic challenges can't recover on the back of its rival's troubles. If the Republicans project a hungry look of vengeance, they may be the victims, not the beneficiaries, of all these problems.
Is this really Watergate 2.0?
This is the only occasion in the history of the Republican Party when a quote from Karl Marx should provide a guiding light for the GOP: History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. The danger for the Republicans is that pressing the Watergate analogy could simply transform this episode into a farce.
Watergate was a systemic and systematic crime, a set of incidents – yes, the use of the IRS for partisan reasons, enemy lists, and intrusions into the prerogatives of the press, but far, far more – that amounted to a criminal conspiracy to warp the U.S. government for selfish, often petty political reasons.
It involved dirty tricks, massive coverups leading directly to the White House and then to the president, wiretaps, burglaries, money laundering, campaign finance violations, secret funds, rogue task forces acting outside of the law, and much, much more, including an argot (limited modified hangout, deep six, third-rate burglary, at this point in time, I am not a crook) all its own.
We're not there yet. Besides, the U.S. has had only 44 presidencies. Every administration has its own character, and every president is possessed of a distinct character. The danger for the Obama administration isn't that these affairs add up to another Watergate; they won't. The danger is that they will add up to something uniquely Barack Obama. They could.
David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.