A stain on the Democratic brand

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WASHINGTON -- One consequence of presidential nominee Mitt Romney's loss last November was an internal autopsy on the reputation of the Republican Party itself. Questions were raised whether its "brand" had been seriously damaged as excessively conservative and hostile to middle-class America.

Romney's dismissive reference to "the 47 percent of Americans" he claimed were captured by liberal government bribes was widely cited as proof of Republican disaffection from the rest of the country. All manner of cautions were raised by the faithful that the party had better re-examine the image it presented to the voting public. Particular emphasis was placed on the need to appeal to alienated Hispanic voters.

But now, suddenly, it's the Democratic Party, and more specifically the Obama administration, that has cause to worry about the public perception of its brand. Beyond the image as advocate of big government serving a liberal agenda, the party of FDR and the New Deal must now cope with a creeping reputation of excessive political self-preservation and even corruption.

The damaging political developments started with the imbroglio over the terrorist attacks on Benghazi. Now the Internal Revenue Service's probing of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status and the chilling Justice Department secret spying on Associated Press reporters have raised questions about the credibility and intrusiveness of this Democratic administration.

With heavy encouragement from Republicans in Congress, the Benghazi fiasco is being rehashed, suggesting an administration cover-up of a national security failure during the 2012 presidential election. Meanwhile, the IRS and Justice capers are being labeled "Nixonian" in comparison with the worst Big Brother escapades of the Watergate affair that drove Tricky Dick from the Oval Office nearly four decades ago.

Suddenly, President Obama is finding the second term he won last fall to be less of a fresh start than a defensive stand against allegations of ineptitude at least and of incompetence and illegalities at worst. So far he has countered them with expressions of dismay and outrage but no tangible actions.

His latest response to the resurrected Benghazi episode, fanned by disclosed talking points suggesting a dispute between the CIA and the State Department over how to describe the attacks, has been to dismiss the argument as a politically motivated "sideshow." As for the IRS and AP intrusions, Obama wants to await further proof of malfeasance before making heads roll.

It is premature, certainly, to compare the clearly regrettable occasions of bureaucratic snooping into the political beliefs of petitioners for IRS tax relief and the legitimate investigations of reporters of the Associated Press with the widespread criminality of Watergate. The actions against the AP, long revered in the journalism community for its objectivity, is particularly galling to free-press defenders.

President Obama is not implicated himself, but he and the Democratic Party must heed, learn and not repeat the fatal example of Richard Nixon and his chief co-conspirators. They attempted to cover up their multiple misdeeds in the scandal and were finally brought down by their denials.

Before a promised avalanche of further congressional hearings into all these controversies expands what Obama now calls a sideshow into a three-ring circus, the president needs to demonstrate much tougher executive leadership. He must do all he can to clean his own house, clarifying how high up responsibility went for the shady undertakings of some administration officials at both the IRS and the Justice Department.

Through his first term, Obama essentially avoided internal scandal and was criticized mostly for trying too hard to work with a Republican establishment bent on obstructing his agenda and denying him a second term. Now that he has it, he must clear away the latest underbrush of kudzu threatening to engulf his aspirations for a positive legacy before leaving the White House in 2017.

All presidents are obliged to cope with bureaucrats who in their zeal or stupidity take actions that jeopardize the reputation and efficiency of the administrations in which they serve. Obama must nip the current scandals in the bud if he hopes to make the most of his second term, or risk having them cloud the political discourse through his remaining White House years.

(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.)

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Andy Green, the opinion editor, has taken the "know a little bit about everything" approach in his time at The Sun. He was the city/state editor before coming to the editorial board, and prior to that he covered the State House and Baltimore County government.

Tricia Bishop, the deputy editorial page editor, was a reporter in the business and metro sections covering biotechnology, education and city and federal courts prior to joining the board.

Peter Jensen, former State House reporter and features writer, takes the lead on state government, transportation issues and the environment; he is the board's resident funny man and capital schmooze.

Glenn McNatt, who returned to editorial writing after serving as the newspaper's art critic, keeps an eye on the arts, culture, politics and the law for the editorial board.

The pregnancy defense [Poll]

The Baltimore officer who slit a pet shar-pei's throat claims he did it so the animal's body could be tested for rabies, easing the mind of a pregnant woman bitten by the dog. Do you believe him?

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