WASHINGTON -- Nothing is what it seems in Washington at the moment you see it. A triple witching hour of scandal has Republicans bursting with bloodlust. But they should be careful what they wish for, because they may get it.
For now, the evidence is obvious and overwhelming that the Benghazi, Internal Revenue Service and Associated Press stories are a political boon to the GOP.
A vivid, important example is what these stories -- the IRS scandal in particular -- mean for Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader.
With no Democrat to challenge him so far, McConnell and his advisers had only one thing to fret about as he geared up to run for a sixth term in Kentucky: a local tea party attack. But whatever worries McConnell had on that front have now disappeared thanks to the overreaching bureaucrats at the IRS.
Playing the role of the righteously aggrieved foe of Big Government, McConnell is leading the charge in the Senate to investigate the IRS' disproportionate and intrusive vetting of the tax status of conservative grassroots groups. In a state practically founded on hatred of the taxing power of the federal government, it's the role of a lifetime.
"We've only started to scratch the surface," he said gravely, and hopefully, on Tuesday.
His aides couldn't be more thrilled.
"This is the final brick in the wall against a primary of any credibility," McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton told me. "Of course there will always be some dogs that bark, but their pack is small and shrinking."
Because it plays into the conservative narrative of fear and resentment, the IRS effect could help Republicans in other states in 2014 as well.
There are additional short-term benefits for the GOP. An administration preoccupied by scandal helps the Republicans' main -- and always candidly stated -- objective: to slow walk or derail virtually all of the president's agenda.
When Barack Obama was first inaugurated in 2009, McConnell declared his determination to make Obama a one-term president. Having failed electorally in 2012, Republicans can now proceed by other means -- with a blizzard of congressional subpoenas, committee investigations and demands for independent special prosecutors.
The national face of the party will no longer be Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- appealing enough characters -- but California Rep. Darrell Issa, who got rich by making car alarms and now will become famous by issuing subpoenas.
The opportunities are vast for him and other committee chairs to rummage through the Department of Justice, the FBI, the IRS and the White House for answers to the hoary question, "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
There already are calls for independent prosecutors; there will be more.
There already are calls for Attorney General Eric Holder to resign or be fired; there will be more.
There are faint calls for impeachment proceedings; they will get louder.
There will be subpoenas issued for White House documents and emails, polite refusals by the White House Counsel's Office, and accusations of witch hunts all around.
Riskless fun for the GOP, huh? No.
First, investigations are not an agenda. They can all too easily seem like a vendetta.
Second, Benghazi, the IRS and the AP subpoenas are separate issues, not joined as one, despite the Republican spin doctors' efforts to unite them into a sweeping saga of arrogance, mendacity and election-year overreach.
Third, as much pleasure as the GOP and the press may take in repeating "What did he know and when did he know it," there is as yet no evidence, and there may never be any, that President Obama knew about the IRS dragnet of conservatives, the Justice Department dragnet of the AP, or the Benghazi talking points and diplomatic security issues.
Fourth, the Republicans urgently -- for their own good -- need to work with the president and Democrats to accomplish two legislative goals that matter deeply to the GOP. Republicans need a deal on immigration reform to ward off future bludgeoning at the polls by the fast-growing cohort of Latino voters. And Republicans need a deal on Medicare and Social Security reform that has the blessing of a Democratic president. Otherwise, the GOP will continue to get bludgeoned at the polls by the fast-growing cohort of baby boomers reaching retirement age.
Lastly, and most important, Washington politics is no longer a game of seesaw: You don't rise just because your opponent falls. Months of trashing President Obama won't automatically mean happy days for the GOP.
Voters despise Washington and its partisan paralysis. They want action that tangibly improves their lives. They are justifiably furious that they aren't getting that action. They will punish whomever they most blame for the inaction.
Maybe that will be Obama. Perhaps voters will blame him, not so much for political corruption as for managerial lassitude, the old aloofness thing.
But you never know.
Take a look back at 1998. That year, the Washington Beltway, media and Republican Party had driven a second-term president, Bill Clinton, into a sordid corner with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton kept talking about all the things he wanted to get done, even as impeachment was grinding inexorably nearer.
In November of that year, the Democrats in Congress picked up seats.