Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How to make a political scandal stick

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Mon May 27, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: Controversy over IRS official gives hope to those hoping for an Obama scandal
  • She says new technology today helps unearth, stoke scandals globally
  • Recipe for scandal: high official in clear-cut story that bears out suspicion of power abuse
  • Ghitis: Obama still popular; "scandal" isn't quite sticking to him

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns.

(CNN) -- When an official from the Internal Revenue Service decides to take the Fifth before a congressional committee and is then put on administrative leave, as Lois Lerner was recently, hearts on the political right surely beat a little faster. Does this mean that at least one of the controversies swirling around the Obama administration in recent weeks will gain strength, perhaps enough to pull him under?

So far it appears that the administration's trio of troubles -- the IRS's scrutiny of the tea party, the Justice Department's investigation of journalists, and the State Department's handling of the Benghazi attacks -- lack some of the key ingredients required to brew a strong scandal, the kind that does some serious damage, that produces widespread public interest and intense emotional involvement, and stains an administration, leaving its mark on history.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

The IRS controversy and Lerner drama stokes the sense of crisis in Washington. But Americans are hardly alone in discovering troubling developments in high places. The world is awash in scandals, partly the result of new technologies. In countries where people have long felt they had no voice, the powerful are feeling new public scrutiny.

The most resonant scandals take an already-existing concern and turn it into a concrete story, one that gets the popular blood boiling. To gain traction, it must demonstrate a clear-cut example of abuse of power that is part of a pattern, not just an isolated instance of incompetence, stupidity or poor judgment. It must lead directly to a powerful individual, and must represent a problem that is viewed as having serious implications, even if the case itself is not necessarily consequential.

Of the three controversies brewing in the U.S., the IRS affair has the greatest potential to get the public emotionally involved, because the tax agency has power over everyone. Bureaucratic overreach feels potentially threatening to all.

A higher-stakes example can be found in the case of the impoverished Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi. In 2010, after a municipal employee confiscated his produce, Bouazizi, despairing at the injustice and his own powerlessness, set himself on fire. His case resonated. It was a minor instance in the larger scheme of corruption and dictatorship, but it sparked a revolutionary fire that keeps burning to this day across the Middle East and North Africa.

Three controversies at the White House
IRS controversy widens
Curse of the second-term controversy

In Mexico, an incident that in the past would have passed without notice spread rapidly over the Internet, ultimately requiring presidential action. The daughter of the head of the consumer protection agency showed up at the trendy Maximo Bistrot in the capital without a reservation. When she could not get a table, she threatened to have the place shut down. Officials from her father's agency, known as Profeco, promptly raided the establishment.

"Lady Profeco," as Andrea Benitez came to be known, became the personification of the super-entitled member of the elite, a character Mexicans know well and have long resented. Benitez's image, holding a cell phone to her ear and wearing fashionable sunglasses, spread in online parodies. Last week, Mexico's president fired her father.

In the U.S., the unfolding storylines are raising hopes among the president's critics -- and fear among his supporters -- that they will derail his presidency or at least snuff out his second-term agenda.

They involve unquestionably important issues: The government undermines the First Amendment when the Justice Department spies on reporters. If the IRS is targeting groups because they oppose government policies, that is a clear and egregious abuse of power. And the disaster in Libya raises important questions about security and transparency.

And yet, Americans as a whole don't appear to view these cases as emblematic of a particular problem with the current presidency. Polls show most Americans -- 58% -- still view Obama as "honest and trustworthy." An even greater number, 79%, consider the president likable.

That explains why even though most Americans consider the cases "very important to the nation," the approval rating for Obama has not suffered.

This presents a challenge to those who want to see the scandals demolish the Obama presidency and shut down his agenda. A scandal loses some of its power to demolish when it is viewed as a political game.

All this, of course, could change. An official's decision to invoke the right against self-incrimination certainly adds to the air of suspicion. But when the president's image does not fit neatly with the revelations in a potential scandal, then the facts of the case, the continuing drops of new information, must have the power to redraw that image.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT