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 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT