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Politics 2014: GOP, Tea Party followers must exercise discipline

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International   |   June 9, 2013 at 5:30 AM   |   Comments

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Oh! The places Republicans and Tea Party movement members hope to go in 2014 and beyond, and some think they have three high-profile controversies afflicting the Obama White House that will help them -- but they must tread lightly, a Republican strategist says.

"They need to stay disciplined," said David E. Johnson, chief executive officer of Strategic Vision in Suwanee, Ga., and they must resist the urge to turn every scandal "into another Watergate," the third-rate break-in that led to GOP President Richard Nixon's downfall.

Republicans have a seeming abundance of riches handed to them on a platter: Questions surrounding the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the IRS' scrutiny of conservative organizations, the Justice Department's checking out The Associated Press' phone logs, and National Security Agency meta data mining of users of Verizon, Google and Facebook.

But with the spoils comes responsibility and the need to keep a cool head and focused message, said Johnson, a senior Republican consultant who was named one of Campaigns & Elections Magazine's Top 500 Influencers for 2013.

Modern politicians moving about in such a polarized atmosphere must tone it down, Johnson said, as former House Speaker Tip O'Neill did during the Watergate hearings because he didn't want it to appear to be "a partisan witch hunt."

Republican leaders need to "keep members in check, otherwise that's [witch hunt] going to become the narrative," Johnson said.

That's why the message needs to be they "just want to go to where the evidence leads," said Johnson, who worked on Sen. Bob Dole's 1988 presidential bid and has overseen numerous other campaigns.

But besides Watergate -- to which some Republicans and Tea Party advocates have compared the Obama administration's discomfiture amid calls for impeachment -- the president's most ardent detractors would do well to remember two other words, Johnson said.

Bill Clinton.

Current Republicans would do well to remember that 1998 House Republicans thought they had Clinton backed into a corner and voted to impeach him on allegations he lied about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in a sworn deposition in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones as well as obstruction of justice charges.

Clinton was acquitted of all charges during the Senate trial and remained in office. Attempts to censure Clinton by the House of Representatives failed.

"Republicans don't want to get too far in front if there nothing there," Johnson said of the Obama controversies. "Keep narrative as an abuse of power. If they go too far ... it'll be 1998 all over again."

Republicans and Tea Party advocates have the advantage of the controversies unfolding during the summer, typically a slow news period, Johnson said.

"Basically, if you can find something that keeps the media interested, I think the American people will be focused on it," he said.

"Republicans need to speak out ... and tell the public that they're going to let the evidence talk," Johnson said, even though that may be easier said than done, given the fractured nature of the party, particularly in the House.

"They can't go over the ledge," Johnson said, recalling how in 1998 "Republicans overreached by jumping too far ahead."

Bring women to the microphone do discuss the scandals, he said, even if it means committee shakeups.

Then, too, Republicans don't have to do much to massage some messages -- particularly when a government official invokes the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination as IRS official Lois Lerner did several weeks ago in a Senate hearing. Lerner disclosed the targeting of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status for closer scrutiny.

"People can relate to that," Johnson said. "Even though it is her constitutional right, when the general public sees a government official doing that, the first thing they do is think, 'What are they hiding?'"

"They don't even need to jump on that."

One way folks can tell whether the scandals story has legs would be by focusing on red states represented by Democrats.

"If you begin seeing these Democrats announce their retirement or start to criticize [the] president, you know the scandals have weight," Johnson said.

If, however, Democrats know the public isn't paying attention, "they won't abandon ship."

A slide, though, could result on Democrats distancing themselves from the administration and calling for special prosecutors, he said.

The big thing right now, Johnson said, is "there's nothing impeachable" as far as he could see.

If there's nothing impeachable, then the discussion points become shifts in White House communication strategies and whether any resignations are tendered, the strategist said.

"Something like that could snowball real quick," Johnson said.

"The longer the scandals go on -- that could take a toll on Obama," Johnson said, noting the president's personal popularity remains high even as national polling indicates a drop in the public's opinion about how he's doing running the country.

"If his personal popularity takes a hit," Johnson said, Democratic candidates would want Obama for fundraising but would be leery of his campaigning for them.

Johnson said he thinks, at some point, "a special prosecutor will be appointed for someone. Lawyers take over ... and the White House becomes isolated. When that happens, it affects his [Obama's] speech-making skills, his PR thing. If all of a sudden he's on the [defensive] ... yeah, I do think that hurts."

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