06/07/2013 12:33 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2013

A Fan's Guide to the Washington Scandal Game

It's no shame to admit that sports can be confusing. Some baseball fans don't know what the infield fly rule is. Some basketball fans may not recognize the difference between a blocking foul and a charge. At least there are game officials and broadcasters who can help to clarify matters as they take place.

Unfortunately, for one of Washington's biggest spectator sports, not only are the rules not clear, the game itself is always out of focus. So in the public interest, herewith is a primer to "Scandal." Not the TV show, but the Congressional show. Some seasons there are lots of scandals, some seasons there are few. There always is at least one for members of Congress to perform. We happen to be in a busy Scandal season of which Kerry Washington and cast-mates are not a part. This is reality TV.

The first basic fact to understanding what constitutes a scandal might be called the Gerald Ford Rule. When Ford (R-Mich.) was a member of the House, he said, on a related topic, "An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history." That's right. It's a game without rules. For some people, a scandal might mean a president trying to get one government agency to quash the investigation being conducted by another, or a president paying hush money. For others, it might be a president selling weapons to one group and funneling the money to another group to conduct a war that Congress has expressly forbidden.

And yet, for some people, a scandal might mean an obscure land deal in which participants lost money or, heaven forbid, a dalliance with a woman not a prominent politician's wife. Not like that could happen.

For still others, an overwhelmed bureaucracy trying to get a handle on an increasing workload by taking short cuts could be a scandal, particularly if there is a handy political angle to exploit. Or some might try to make a tragic, swiftly moving situation half a world away into a scandal based on normal bureaucratic review processes of talk-show talking points. Sigh.

For classification purposes, all of the reports of government spying on civilians are not considered as this type of "scandal." It's an outrage, but it doesn't have the elements of a down-and-dirty partisan food fight because of the bipartisan support it has. Just to be clear.

Scandal Strategies

Simply because there are no rules doesn't mean there are no strategies and tactics. Some are fairly basic, to wit:

Box Out Your Opponents: What matters is making your opponent look bad. Take the controversy over looking into journalists' phone records after a mole in Al Qaeda could have been exposed. There are lots of ways the issue could have been played. Position 1: This is outrageous that Obama is tracking journalists. Position 2: Look how lax they are on national security not to track down a leak like this. The Republicans could have used either one to make Obama look bad.

Or take the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) controversy: Position 1: Obama and his people in Washington were controlling the Cincinnati office. Position 2: The president didn't interfere, but that's because he is out of the loop with his own government.

Be A Victim: It helps to be seen as a victim of some government alleged malfeasance. Let's go back to the IRS thing again. The outrage on the part of Republicans and the right-wing groups could have been rehearsed, and it was.

In April 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report on "Rightwing Extremism," saying that the downturn in the economy could boost recruiting for rightwing groups, particularly as organizations play up opposition to immigration and fear of tighter gun controls.

The Great Noise Machine geared up and denounced the report, although we note they didn't say a word about a report on leftwing extremism that had been issued a couple of months earlier. Then-Minority Leader John Boehner called it "offensive and unacceptable," and every blogger, columnist, commentator and radio personality dumped on the report, calling it a "hit job," among other crass characterizations. The new Obama administration quickly withdrew the report, and decimated the DHS section which produced it.

If this sounds familiar, the victimization story is the same script now being followed by the poor Tea Partiers who wailed of their cruel treatment at the hands of an oppressive government. There's one other element to this story, which leads to the next tactic:

Know Your Opponents: In the 2009 DHS "scandal," Democrats played along and denounced the report, just as today's Democrats are playing along and denouncing what the IRS did. Their alternative course would have been to defend the Obama administration, but that would require some backbone, which Democrats are notoriously lacking. Just as with the panicked reaction to a right-wing hit job film on an Agriculture Dept. employee, Democrats acted in fear first. They fired Shirley Sherrod before the whole truth of the edited video came out, just as they tossed out IRS officials who were trying to make their way through a deluge of applications with few people and unclear legal landscape. The reason that Republicans and their winger opponents can get away with this is the fundamental truth of scandal-mongering:

Facts Don't Matter.

In the case of the 2009 DHS report, it was true that right-wing extremism was on the rise. In the case of the IRS report, it is true that some right-wing groups were abusing their tax privileges by engaging in political activity prohibited by the tax status they claimed, that the damning Inspector General report was sloppy, and that left-wing groups like Progress Texas were also questioned as they should have been by the IRS. Speech is a protected right; a tax exemption isn't. Even so, what isn't true is that the groups had their tax exemptions denied.

What isn't true in the IRS "scandal" is that Bush administration appointee Douglas Shulman went to the White House 157 times to coordinate attacks on the right wing, as conservative commentators have screamed. He went 11 times, and mostly to meet on health care-related issues.

What isn't true about Benghazi is that the standard, if intense, interagency process to clear public talking points for national TV shows while protecting national security and adhering to the best information the government had at the time, is a cover up.

Scandal As Means, Not End
For all the fussing, the scandal game isn't an end in itself. The scandals are a distraction. The scandal-mongers know all they have to do is scream loud enough, and the media will jump on it, regardless of the merits or the facts.

It's easier to throw unsubstantiated charges around than to do work through the hard, detailed process of a real budget resolution. It's more fun to drag bureaucrats before a committee than it is to look at the economic situation and come up with a way to get people back to work.

It's more appealing to the "base" to nullify an election result through phony charges posturing, and procedural roadblocks than to accept that the country needs a functioning legislative body -- something we don't now have.