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Column: It's not Watergate, it's Whitewater

By Nicholas Wapshott

(Reuters) - The trifecta of scandals — Benghazi, the IRS and snooping on journalists — that has broken upon the heads of the Obama administration is as bad as Watergate.

No it isn't, says Bob Woodward, whose reputation was made by doggedly pursuing the source of a burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate Hotel.

No it isn't, says Carl Bernstein, who shares the bragging rights for toppling President Richard Nixon.

Oh yes it is, says Peggy Noonan, the Republicans' mother superior, writing, "We are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate."

Really? How about the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986 that besmirched the honesty of President Ronald Reagan, for whom Noonan used to write speeches? Perhaps she penned Reagan's first denial, "We did not — repeat — did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we," or maybe his amnesiac mea culpa four months later, "I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not." Strange the tricks age plays on the memory. And I am not talking about Reagan.

If you were a precocious five-year-old at the time, you would have to be 32 to recall the Iran-Contra scandal, in which, with or without Reagan's say-so, administration officials, in defiance of Congress's clearly stated wishes, secretly sold weapons to America's perennial enemy, the terrorist state of Iran, then passed the proceeds to Nicaraguan insurgents. Even if you were the smartest kid you would have to be over 41 to remember Watergate and, in President Gerald Ford's words, the "long national nightmare" that led to Nixon's resignation ahead of certain impeachment.

Unless investigations prove that President Barack Obama's actions or inactions led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, or that he directed the Justice Department to subpoena the phone records of 20 AP reporters or that he directed the IRS to investigate Tea Party groups, the current scandals are not Watergate, or even Iran-Contra.

That is not to say that the three events currently under scrutiny are not troubling.

Four Americans were killed in the fog of war surrounding Benghazi, and if such pointless deaths are to be prevented in the future we need to know exactly what happened. Determining who won the talking-points battle between the CIA and State is not that investigation.

If the White House or any party of the Administration directed tax inspectors to target Tea Party groups for special examination because of their conservative/libertarian beliefs, that, too, would be a scandal. It doesn't seem that way. When it comes to conspiracy or incompetence, I'll bet on incompetence every time.

The IRS inspector general's report said 298 political groups received special scrutiny. Of those, only 96 - about a third — were Tea Party groups. And the only group so far to have their eligibility for tax-free status rejected is the Maine chapter of Emerge America that trains Democratic women to run for office. The White House has asked the newly appointed IRS chief to investigate and bring to account those culpable. The sooner that investigation is completed, the sooner we can move on.

If the White House had anything to do with the irregular way in which phone records of 20 AP reporters were seized, we need to know. All administrations dislike leaks, and all say they will find out how they happened. In this case, however, citing that catch-all pretext "national security," the Justice Department went in all guns blazing. Why the overkill? Why abandon the traditional legal means of gathering evidence? We need answers.

If the Republicans on the Hill were more concerned about finding the truth than sensational speculation and unfounded innuendo we would find out answers much quicker. But the GOP is involved in displacement activity. Since the mid-terms of 2010 they have mostly given up legislating, saying government is already too big and that their idleness will contribute to its demise. Now they think they have found the perfect excuse to switch from not passing laws to what they do best, grandstanding. The problem is, it is so evidently partisan, self-serving busywork that few middle-ground voters are paying attention.

The latest Pew poll shows that all except the most avid Fox News gawpers are largely unmoved by Benghazi and that since the recent congressional hearings the numbers taking notice have actually decreased. Those who think the administration has been dishonest are Republicans; those who think it honest are Democrats. I'm shocked. Benghazi continues to be a bore to most people and the further into the weeds congressmen wade, the less likely they are to change voters' minds.

A CNN/ORC poll discovered a similar response to the IRS scandal. While 85 percent thought the subject important and 71 percent found the IRS agents' behavior unacceptable, 61 percent thought Obama had been honest in his account of the matter and 55 percent said the IRS was acting on its own.

Although 54 percent said they did not think Republicans were overreacting, 42 percent thought they were. Even the 37 percent who believe, without evidence, that the White House ordered the IRS to target conservative/libertarian groups is 8 points less than the 45 percent who disapprove in general of the way the president is handling his job. Even the choir doesn't seem to believe the preacher.

An overwhelming 87 percent of voters said the raid on the AP reporters' phone records was an important issue and 52 percent said they thought the Justice Department's action was unacceptable. That is not the whole story. The pollsters reminded respondents Justice was investigating who leaked anti-terrorism efforts, which is why, perhaps, a full 43 percent thought Justice's blundering approach was acceptable.

One Republican who thinks his party is overreaching is the Washington Post's tame conservative Charles Krauthammer, whose recent column opened with: "Note to GOP re Benghazi: Stop calling it Watergate, Iran-Contra, bigger than both, etc." because "overhyping will only diminish the importance of the scandal if it doesn't meet presidency-breaking standards," and "focusing on the political effects simply plays into the hands of Democrats desperately claiming that this is nothing but partisan politics." He then spoiled his argument by spending the next 700-odd words going round in Benghazi circles, but no matter.

I have suggested before that if Republicans are to be a governing party ready to take back the White House, rather than a protest movement destined for permanent opposition, they should concentrate on kitchen-table issues that mean something to the average American. Instead they hope against hope they have tapped a scandal that will topple the president. This is not Watergate, it is Whitewater, the festering accusation by opponents of Bill and Hillary Clinton that they had been up to mischief when investing in a housing development in Arkansas, back before he won the presidency twice. And well before Hillary looked a good bet to be the next president.

President Clinton considers one of his biggest mistakes was not whatever he got up to with Monica Lewinsky in the closet off the Oval Office but his appointment of a special prosecutor to clear his name in the Whitewater business who ended up snooping in the bedroom. That is why, whether it is the best course or not, Obama will not be appointing a special prosecutor to look into Benghazi, the IRS, or the Justice Department. Having seen his Democratic predecessor and the nation's government frozen in inaction through a long-running and vindictive partisan investigation, the president is not going to sacrifice his second term in the same way.

So, is all the Republican bluff, faux indignation and dramatic calling of hearings merely to taint Hillary Clinton's presidential chances in 2016? Maybe. Though it would be the first time many of them have stopped to think beyond the end of next week.

(Nicholas Wapshott is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

(Nicholas Wapshott is the former New York bureau chief of The Times of London. Previously, he was editor of the Saturday Times of London, and founding editor of The Times Magazine. He is a regular broadcaster on MSNBC, PBS, and FOX News. He is the author of "Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage" (2007). His "Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics" was published by W.W.Norton in October. )

(Nicholas Wapshott)

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