Smoke and Fire: Scandal, Incompetence, and Politics as Usual

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While Democrats attack Thom Thillis for his relationship with the Koch brothers, American Crossroads has gone after Kay Hagan for her ties to President Obama. In North Carolina, let the proxy wars begin!

While Democrats attack Thom Thillis for his relationship with the Koch brothers, American Crossroads has gone after Kay Hagan for her ties to President Obama. In North Carolina, let the proxy wars begin!

We’ve all heard the old saw: where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Is there? More often than not, in politics the answer is that it doesn’t matter – the appearance of a scandal can be just as damaging when there’s no underlying malfeasance as when there is. I’ve written before about how one of the important differences between science and politics is that science has tools for checking our perception of the world against the real McCoy. As far as politicians are concerned, however, perception is reality.

Not convinced? Let’s go through a few examples. Have you ever heard someone rail against the amount of money that the United States spends on foreign aid? Yes, of course you have. Ask Americans how much that amounts to, and they’ll tell you: 25%. Twenty five cents out of every dollar is admittedly a lot of money, but 1 cent out of every dollar – the actual amount spent on foreign aid – is a lot less. Now, which of those two figures do you think influences the debate more? I’m going to bet on the number that people perceive to be accurate, and not on the actual number that everyone can look up for themselves from the Congressional Budget Office.

How about something more immediate to a lot of people: does sugar make children hyperactive? No, it doesn’t. (I’m not even going to try to explain that one because I know a lot of readers won’t be easily convinced – instead I’m going to link to The Incidental Economist and let them do it.) But that hasn’t stopped countless parents from denying children their God-given right to high-fructose corn syrup.

Because, again, people respond to perceptions, not reality. Sometimes those perceptions are accurate, and sometimes they’re not. It’s up to us to figure out the difference – and too often it’s up to political operatives to find ways to exploit that same difference.

Which brings us, once more, to Benghazi – the smoke from which seems to be resettling over Washington. This time it’s in the form of a House Select Committee to investigate what happened that night in Libya as well as the supposed coverup that followed. For nearly two years, the country has been treated to a constant drumbeat of accusations leveled at the White House. In all that time, there’s been a fair amount of smoke, but no smoking gun. Where the attacks preceded and followed by questionable decisions? Absolutely. Did the events of that night and the subsequent response betray a certain amount of incompetence on behalf of the Obama administration? It would appear so.

But has there been any evidence of the sort of nefarious cover up that Republicans allege? Not really. On Thursday, Republican Congressman Pete Sessions captured the mood nicely: “There is a witch somewhere.”

In other words, if this is a witch hunt, we’re sure there’s a witch out there but we can’t produce her. That’s almost guaranteed to be exactly where this issue will stand whenever the House committee returns with a report, which is exactly where this issue will stand in 2016 or a decade down the road. These things never get resolved, they just go away.

Sometimes, though, it works the other way. Sometimes, you get a brushfire but no smoke. And last week in North Carolina, we got a spark. On Tuesday, establishment Republican Thom Tillis defeated a Tea Party challenge from Greg Brannon to become the GOP’s candidate for this fall’s Senate race. And for my money, that race produced what should have been last week’s big scandal story.

The Democratic incumbent, Kay Hagan, is running for reelection in unfriendly territory, so she borrowed a page from another Democratic Senator. In 2012, Sen. Claire McCaskill ran an ad during the GOP primary season that appeared to be critical of one of the candidates, Todd Akin. The ad described him as “the most conservative congressman in Missouri” and “Missouri’s true conservative.” The McCaskill campaign maintained that they were simply trying to soften up a likely challenger, but the subterfuge was obvious: painting Akin as the conservative alternative had no credible chance of hurting him during the primary. Sure enough, Akin won that nomination and then went on to a very public implosion during the general election, one which cleared the path for McCaskill’s unlikely reelection.

In North Carolina, Hagan tried the same trick. This time, the Democrat’s ad was targeted at the establishment candidate and reminded voters that Thillis had once called Obamacare “a great idea.” The hope was to once again push the vote in the direction of the Tea Party insurgent and to force the Republican frontrunner into a momentum-sapping runoff election.

It didn’t work and Thillis became the GOP’s nominee for US Senate.

It remains to be seen whether or not Thillis will be able to make Hagan pay a price for her gamble, but I hope he does – and the episode serves as a healthy reminder, if any were needed, that no party holds a monopoly on cynicism. The Republicans might be holding their umpteenth hearing on the Benghazi scandal that never happened, but the Democrats aren’t above their own political chicanery. For all the hair-on-fire warnings we hear from Democrats about the damage Republicans would do to the country if allowed to take public office, they seem perfectly happy to campaign on behalf of the most conservative Republicans – and make it likelier that precisely those Republicans will take office – if it will marginally improve their own chances of reelection.

Unfortunately, it seems that both Democrats and Republicans are blowing smoke.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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