Twenty years ago, conservative media mavens seemed able to turn any minor flap into scandal gold, be it a decade-old land deal that lost money or a mundane replacement of White House travel office staff. They even pressured Bill Clinton, early in his first term, to accept an investigation led by an independent special prosecutor, which years later led to his own impeachment. Liberals, in disturbed awe of the Right's ability to control the media narrative, dubbed the conservative media the "Republican Noise Machine."
Yet today, no matter how loud conservatives scream "Benghazi," "Solyndra," "Fast and Furious" and even "Intim-O-Gate" (Glenn Beck's failed attempt to brand the IRS and leak investigation controversies), President Obama glides past. His poll numbers remain relatively stable.
There is not really a "what did the president know" drumbeat, and no suggestion he warrants independent investigation. Calls for Attorney General Eric Holder's resignation died down following his meeting with Washington media bureau chiefs. Benghazi lightning rod Susan Rice just got a promotion, and her Republican antagonists are pledging cooperation.
What happened to the Republican Noise Machine? Here are three reasons it's sputtering:
1. Liberals finally learned how to fight back
When the 1988 George H. W. Bush presidential campaign derided Gov. Michael Dukakis with smear after smear, the Democrat fatally believed he could simply ignore it because "nobody's going to believe it." In the 1990s, Bill Clinton naively believed naming a special prosecutor would put to rest any doubts about his real estate dealings. In 2004, Sen. John Kerry thought he could wait a few weeks before responding to the "Swift Boat" attacks on his war record and avoid inadvertently spreading false smears.
But in 2008, the Obama campaign aggressively fought off smears, sometimes with high-profile speeches, sometimes by quietly getting factual responses in the hands of the media. And newly established outside groups like Media Matters provided big assists.
Today, the forward-leaning approach continues. Democrats are quick to challenge the credibility of chief Obama antagonist Rep. Darrell Issa. The work of left-leaning reporters that debunk hysterical conservative charges is rapidly shared, minimizing the echo chamber effect of smears being repeated by traditional media outlets for days and accepted as fact before any belated corrections materialize.
2. Conservatives have cried wolf too many times
Conservative firebrand Michelle Malkin futilely tried to tag Obama as fostering a "culture of corruption" in a book published merely six months into his presidency. Breathless charges of cronyism in the Solyndra matter proved to be baseless. You will not be surprised to learn that "Fast and Furious" was not a deliberate plot by Obama to ship guns to Mexican drug cartels, maximize cross-border gun violence, and con the public into accepting draconian gun control. These are a mere few examples of smears gone bust in the Obama era.
In turn, conservative muckrakers don't get the benefit of the doubt anymore. Granted, the traditional media still lets conservatives stir the pot, happily broadcasting initial charges. But the media has been less inclined to let conservatives dump the pot all over the front pages with wild speculation, day after day after day.
3. When something does go wrong, Obama is quick to take care of business
Martha Johnson, resigned. Robert Peck, fired. David Chaney, resigned. Greg Stokes, indefinitely suspended without pay. Louis Caldera, resigned.
Don't know who those people are? That's because President Obama got rid of them fast enough to prevent their minor scandals from being exploited by Republicans and becoming extended media soap operas.
The itchy trigger finger has its downside: Agricultural Department state-level director Shirley Sherrod was infamously and prematurely whacked before it could be proven she was the victim of a dishonestly edited video charging her with anti-white racism. Liberal Obama detractors accused Obama of cowering in the face of right-wing bullying.
However, Obama's overall record shows he is quite willing to fight back when he is standing on firm ground, yet also willing to jettison problem staffers when he sees their actions as indefensible. Sherrod's ouster was just one mistake out of haste. But Obama's basic approach of speedy decision-making has served his purposes of preventing low-level scandals from metastasizing.