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YOUNG: The risk of overplaying scandal

By exceeding the facts, Republicans could damage their credibility

- - Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Americans are hard to lead politically, but they will follow reason. That is a lesson the country has repeatedly taught those aspiring to lead it. It is now one that Republicans should take to heart as they address the Obama administration's sudden onslaught of scandals.

Early in its second term, the Obama White House risks going from being seemingly garbed in Teflon to wearing Velcro. Whereas nothing stuck to it in its first term, suddenly everything appears to stick now.

There has been the bungling of the Benghazi attack, the Internal Revenue Service's political profiling of conservative groups, the Department of Health and Human Resources' "solicitations" to aid the implementation of "Obamacare," the Justice Department's "investigation" of reporters, and the recent revelations of the National Security Agency's collecting of phone records. Not only can the White House not shake these scandals, it seems to be digging itself in ever deeper.

Nothing good comes from scandal. Whether a sin of commission or omission, whether malfeasance, negligence or incompetence, all are bad. The only question is: How bad? Whatever the excuse, it never redounds to a president's credit. Ultimately, if it happens on your watch, as commander in chief, you are responsible. Today's scandals are no different.

While the White House has countless questions to answer when confronted with scandal, the party in opposition really has only two: Should this be treated as a political windfall or a case for oversight? While there may be two questions, there is only one right answer.

Republicans now contemplating how to deal with the administration's scandals must find the facts and let them speak for themselves. The opposite course — trying to speak over the facts — is fraught with its own peril.

The clearest example of this peril was the Clinton impeachment. At one time, President Clinton's misdeeds probably were impeachable offenses. In 1998, however, they were not — at least in the court that ultimately counted: public opinion. Americans were simply unwilling to go that far with punitive measures. The further Republicans went, the more unwilling America was to follow.

Certainly, Mr. Clinton did not come out ahead in the episode, but Republicans' efforts to punish him with impeachment ultimately led to his vindication.

So how then are Republicans to handle the current scandals? In the old police TV drama "Dragnet," the lead character, Sgt. Joe Friday, had a succinct approach to his investigations: "Just the facts, ma'am."

Rather than telling the story themselves, Republicans should focus on gathering the scandals' facts and letting them tell the story. Since Americans are historically and bipartisanly reluctant to accept the word of political leaders, Republicans should let reason lead voters to their own conclusions.

Scandal calculus shows how wise a political course this would be. The scandals are a loser for President Obama. The more that is known about them, the bigger his loss will be. The public will draw its own conclusions about the trustworthiness of the Obama administration independent of what GOP party leaders proffer.

This needs to Republicans' Joe Friday moment: just the facts. It always worked for Joe.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.