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Why Second-Term Scandals Are Almost Inevitable

Bloomberg View Memo Pad Politics

Why Second-Term Scandals Are Almost Inevitable


In the last month, there has been a lot of talk about whether American presidents face a second-term curse. It’s not clear that such a thing exists, but any second-term president is likely to have to deal with some real or apparent scandals. The reason isn’t arrogance, distraction or hubris. It’s a matter of arithmetic.

Whether a president will face an alleged or actual scandal depends on two variables. The first is whether something inappropriate, or at least apparently so, has happened either at his direction or on his watch. The second is whether someone has both the incentive and the ability to bring the allegedly inappropriate action to the attention of the public.

With respect to the first variable, a great deal depends on how long a president has been in office. As time passes, the incumbent becomes more likely than his predecessor to be held responsible for bad outcomes. Even more important, the sheer number of executive-branch decisions increases substantially over time. With every month, it becomes more likely that at least one of those decisions will turn out to be incorrect, inappropriate or worse.

If the president encourages or tolerates misconduct, the likelihood of scandals is high by definition. It will only grow over time.

The same is true even if the president is entirely honorable. Because the executive branch is exceptionally large, no president, however vigilant, can possibly control everything that happens there. Many thousands of federal officials, working in dozens of different agencies, are in a position to make important decisions, some of which may turn out to be wrong, inappropriate or worse.

True, an honorable and diligent president can significantly reduce the risk of misconduct. But after a period of four years, a bad or troubling decision is almost inevitable, given the sheer number of choices that will have been made. The real question is whether a troubling decision will turn into an apparent or actual scandal.

Which brings us to the second variable. Having been defeated twice, an opposing party will be angry and frustrated. It will seek to undermine the incumbent president however it can. Investigating real or apparent scandals can be an excellent way to weaken him. A losing party may see an alleged scandal, or an apparently reasonable claim for an investigation, as a political winner.

If the House and the Senate are both in the hands of the president’s party, the threshold for a serious investigation is obviously far higher than if either is controlled by the opposing party.

The media matter, as well. A honeymoon period is far more likely in the president’s first term than in the second. And if the media are well disposed toward him, they are far less likely to investigate and publicize apparently troubling decisions than if journalists are skeptical about him. At the same time, the media are less likely to focus on scandals if they are preoccupied with other matters (such as an economic crisis, a war or other high-profile issues).


  1. docb May 24, 2013

    Hmmm…the repub sequester might be the real scandal. It is hurting their constituents the most as projected…Their Memorial Day recess might not be so fun!


  2. Dominick Vila May 25, 2013

    Considering the size of our government and the scope of its functions, scandals are inevitable. What is important is to separate reality from fiction. Scandals such as Iran-Contra, Watergate, and the invasion of Iraq deserved close scrutiny and decisive action. The most recent “scandals” are fabricated issues magnified by a complicit media determined to increase market share. Benghazi is no different from the dozen terrorist attacks against our diplomatic missions when former President Bush was in office. The difference between the way these tragedies were handled, reported, and settled could not be more stark. The FBI-AP issue is such a blatant example of hyperbole that it does not even merit debate. The IRS scandal is under investigation and those responsible, if any, will be disciplined and probably fired. There is a difference, however, between wrongdoing by the White House and/or Congress and something done by low ranking civil servants. It is also important to remember what motivated the latter. Some Tea Party tax exempt organizations provided false information in their applications for tax exempt status and got caught. That does not mean the IRS singled out right wing groups and left their opponents off the hook, it means that people in positions of responsibility lied and got caught.

    1. Allan Richardson May 25, 2013

      The real scandal of Iran-Contra never did get investigated: the use of Bush’s CIA connections before the election, while Reagan and Bush were both still PRIVATE CITIZENS, to counter-negotiate with Iran to keep the hostages captive IN ORDER to make sure that Carter would lose. Reagan did not just wake up one day AFTER becoming President and decide, “Let’s sell arms to Iran!” The weapons were to be sold to Iran all along, as Reagan’s part of that bargain. That was why Carter was unable to negotiate an end to the hostage crisis: his political opponents were promising Iran something ELSE not to come to an agreement with Carter.

      Surprisingly, the press and the public never noticed the COINCIDENCE of Iran releasing the hostages just as Reagan was FINISHING HIS INAUGURAL address, until the Iran-Contra scandal broke TWO WEEKS after he was RE-elected. By that time the evidence was well hidden (when the criminal becomes the police after committing the crime, there are suddenly no leads). And the public was so fooled by Reagan’s I’m-just-a-country-boy act (did we FORGET that he was an ACTOR?) and Bush’s apparent incompetence, that even Democrats let it go by.

      1. ralphkr May 25, 2013

        The thing about the Iran-Contra investigation is that Congress did not give a hoot about the Iranian end but were really ticked off about the Contra end because they had passed a law specifically forbidding arming & aiding them. That Congress had not passed any laws about arming our enemies or private citizens making deals for the Fed gov’t (those laws had been passed by long ago Congresses) so they did not take those far more heinous crimes as seriously as the breaking of a law that they, themselves, had passed.

        1. Allan Richardson May 25, 2013

          I will probably get flamed by Reagan zealots, but the truth is, if any liberal had done those things and had gotten caught, that liberal would be in jail today. Both ends of the arms deal were borderline treasonous (but not technically, since we have not had a LEGALLY DECLARED WAR since 1945), as was the “prelude”. Selling arms to Iran was theft from the taxpayers who had paid for them originally (since the money was not reimbursed to the U. S. Treasury), and was double-crossing our ally at the time, Iraq; using the unaccounted funds to buy arms (most likely on the black market, from criminals) to give to rebels trying to overthrow a LEGALLY ELECTED Nicaraguan regime, who used it to murder nuns and other innocent people, was also a betrayal of the American people (and as you said, that was the part that the Congress of those days really noticed; what is black and white and red all over? a Nicaraguan nun); and the “prelude” which was too well hidden to be legally proven, using ILLEGAL negotiations and promises to a foreign power to SABOTAGE OFFICIAL DIPLOMACY, in order to get into power and carry out the other illegal “deals”, was a betrayal of our electoral process as well as the current President who was conducting that diplomacy (not to mention the hostages themselves, who could have been released MONTHS earlier without the Reagan-Bush INTERFERENCE). There were at least THREE laws broken, two of them AFTER he won election … BY BREAKING the first law!

          And Reagan’s propaganda position that the Nicaraguan government was communist, another Cuba, and about to invade the U.S. at any moment, which was incorporated into a popular but totally fictitious movie “Red Dawn”, was false, as shown by the fact that, after defeating the contras, they went on to have normal elections, with about as much democracy as any third world nation, and more than most.

          Overall, Ronald Reagan, the ACTING President, messed up a lot of good things in America and started us on the downhill economic slide we have experienced since then.

          1. Dominick Vila May 26, 2013

            If a liberal President had done one tenth of what Reagan and W did, that liberal would have been lynched.


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