Beyond Scandal

When everything is a scandal, nothing is a scandal. No presidency personifies this idea better than that of Joe Biden, which at this point would put such political dramas as “House of Cards” to shame. Take your pick of any one scandalous revelation about Biden himself, the Biden family, or the Biden Administration—from the classified documents scandal to Hunter Biden’s numerous shady overseas business deals, involving several members of his family—and the subsequent explanation for an uninformed voter would most likely unfold with all of the same drama and depth as a scene from an Oliver Stone movie.

Two major scandals recently broke on the same day, involving two of the highest-ranking Cabinet officials in the Biden White House: Secretary of State Antony Blinken is staring down the barrel of sworn testimony that he orchestrated the bogus letter by former “intelligence officials” declaring that the New York Post’s reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop was “Russian disinformation,” while Attorney General Merrick Garland has been accused by a whistleblower of lying to Congress about an ongoing criminal investigation into Hunter Biden’s taxes.

And yet, while the going rate is at least one major scandal every month, it all has become less shocking. 

The fact that Biden’s approval ratings largely haven’t been affected by any of these ordeals makes us wonder: Does anything in modern American politics truly shock the average voter anymore? Do “scandals” even really matter? Or have we entered a political twilight zone where all conventional wisdom about corruption, criminality, and other once-shunned nefarious deeds are now just footnotes in our political discourse?

Impeachment Is Dead, Long Live Impeachment

Case-in-point is the death of impeachment as a legitimate legal proceeding, which has instead given rise to impeachment as a political weapon. Having been used only twice before for the first 222 years of American history, impeachment morphed into a political affair with Bill Clinton’s trial in 1998.

Before the trial even began, talk of impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky scandal had already backfired on the Republican-led Congress—despite their 1994 midterms historic landslide—and the backlash from impeachment led to a drastic pendulum swing in 1998, when the Democrats actually gained in the U.S. House and lost no seats in the Senate. This marked the first time since Reconstruction that an incumbent president facing his sixth-year midterms did not see his party lose seats in either chamber. Clinton went on to leave office with high approval ratings, and to this day his presidency is judged positively, despite being only the second president in history at the time to have ever been impeached.

The same goes for President Donald Trump, who was impeached twice on equally spurious charges, which he shook off rather effortlessly. His approval ratings rose in the aftermath of both impeachments, and his support among the Republican base in particular only grew stronger in both instances, with the accurate perception that their president was being politically persecuted rather than being charged with serious crimes.

Since Bill Clinton, impeachment has been thrown around just as regularly as any other political tactic when one party fiercely opposes an incumbent president’s policies. There was talk of impeaching George W. Bush for “war crimes” in the Middle East, or impeaching Barack Obama for the deadly September 11, 2012 terrorist attack on the American embassy in Benghazi. 

And already some Republicans in Congress have discussed impeaching Joe Biden for a number of offenses, including the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and his mishandling of classified documents as vice president. It’s a fair bet that if Biden is impeached, he too would see his approval ratings rise out of sympathy. What was once a historically extraordinary procedure has become commonplace.

Polarized Opposites

The decline of true political scandals can certainly be directly attributed to the rise of hyperpartisanship, with both parties becoming increasingly tribal and more likely to defend their own at all costs. As the media increasingly becomes more determined to carry water for the Democrats, we have witnessed the blatant suppression of any semblance of negative press coverage of Joe Biden or any of his accomplices.

From the widespread censorship of the original “laptop from hell” story, to the media’s acceptance of the Biden Administration’s redefinition of “recession,” the media has spent years trying to convince the public that negative publicity for Democrats simply does not exist. Democrats and their voters, in turn, point to the media coverage as “proof” that their side is never guilty of any wrongdoing.

Conservative Americans now rightfully refuse to believe anything the mainstream media says, especially when it comes to supposed “scandals” involving Republicans. As such, they have correctly ignored the media’s endless crowing about such “scandals” as the Russian collusion hoax, the Brett Kavanaugh accusations, or the idea that Trump “incited an insurrection” on January 6, 2021. The 45th president’s popularity has reached record highs in the aftermath of his indictment and arraignment in New York City, clearly the opposite of the intended effect.

But even when Republicans are found guilty, the base is willing to defend even these shady figures, purely out of spite against the lying media. After all, if Democrats are now given a free pass to commit crimes and engage in corruption with impunity, why shouldn’t Republicans play by the same rules? 

The Times Are A-Changin’

Political polarization and mainstream bias are nothing new: just look at how deeply divided our nation was in the tumultuous 1960s or how the mainstream media went out of its way to cover up the numerous scandals of President John F. Kennedy. But it’s no contest when you compare what qualified as a scandal then to what qualifies as a scandal today.

In 1988, Biden’s first presidential campaign crashed and burned when it was revealed that he had plagiarized a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. This would not even generate five seconds of coverage today. In 2004, the presidential campaign of Democrat Howard Dean imploded in spectacular fashion, all because he let out an unusually high-pitched yell at a campaign rally. 

Were he to do the same thing today, the moment would go viral on TikTok and, if anything, would likely help his poll numbers rise.

In 2008, it was a scandal that the teenage daughter of vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin had gotten pregnant out of wedlock. Now, the media refuses even to cover the fact that Hunter Biden fathered a child with a stripper to whom he was not married. Hunter’s refusal to acknowledge either of them or provide child support led to a contentious court case in Arkansas.

The bar for what qualifies as shocking or a scandal will only get lower. Just look at recent former members of Congress such as Katie Hill (D-Calif.) and Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.). Remember: In both cases, it was not the leaking of their respective nude photos and videos that ultimately did them in, but rather the loss of support of their party’s leaders. In Hill’s case, it was due to an alleged affair with a congressional staffer (which violated a post-#MeToo House ethics rule), leading to condemnation from then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Cawthorn was undone by backlash from then-Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-Calif.) and other GOP leaders over a joke about cocaine use in Washington, D.C. (And even then, Cawthorn only narrowly lost his primary in 2022 by less than two points).

Storm Chasers

We’ve come a long way from the days of Watergate, which led to a massive decline in trust in our governmental institutions. It was also a watershed moment for the corporate media, political partisanship, and the hunger for political scandals.

Ever since that fateful day on August 9, 1974, when Richard Nixon became the first president to resign his office, practically every political journalist in the country stopped seeking the truth and set aside objectivity in their reporting. Everyone wanted to be the next Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Reporters stopped being fair and balanced arbiters of the news and instead dreamed of one day being the next activist with a byline to take down a Republican president. As such, there have been more open “scandals” in American politics, on both sides, in the subsequent five decades than ever before in our history.

Scandalous behavior becoming more broadly accepted by both sides is certainly a sign of our culture’s decline, as civility and accountability dwindle further away. At the same time, if both sides finally give up the practice of chasing after meaningless political storm clouds, then the parties will instead be forced to address the pressing issues of our time, rather than debate about which side is more scandal-ridden.

One side has already gone all-in with efforts to paint the opposition as the more scandal-heavy, tossing actual campaign issues to the wind in favor of generating headlines about indictments, arraignments, and criminal charges. And we have already seen how much this has backfired spectacularly on the Democrats after they tried to strike down President Trump.

While the Republican Party seems to have dedicated its legislative agenda entirely to committee hearings and congressional subpoenas for the Biden family and Biden Cabinet officials, they needn’t make the same mistake of turning the 2024 campaign into a referendum on Biden’s corruption. If they do, then they will surely lose. If they instead allow the campaign to become about the issues that matter, as President Trump has already been doing with his in-depth policy videos, then 2024 will be the first presidential victory in a post-scandal America.

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About Eric Lendrum

Eric Lendrum graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was the Secretary of the College Republicans and the founding chairman of the school’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter. He has interned for Young America’s Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the White House, and has worked for numerous campaigns including the 2018 re-election of Congressman Devin Nunes (CA-22). He is currently a co-host of The Right Take podcast.

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