The word “scandal” has a more complicated etymology than one might expect. Briefly, it was even used as a verb–in the way we use “scandalize”–around the 13th century.
From the OED online, here is a definition with which we’re familiar:
3. a. A grossly discreditable circumstance, event, or condition of things.
But it can also refer to false imputation–“mere rumor.” In legal language, it appears to refer to kinds of slander and libel.
Political “controversy” seems to mutate into political “scandal” when someone or some force, like the press, establishes a lie: Watergate; Clinton vis a vis Lewinsky; Larry Craig; Mark Sanford.
When does a scandal, however, mutate into a career-ending precipitating event? Amid all the potential correlatives, one simple factor may obtain: the votes, literally and figuratively. Nixon was going to lose the vote in impeachment, and he’d lost the figurative vote among his supporters, such as Attorneys General and Republican Senators. Clinton was not going to lose the vote in impeachment. The Senate was not going to push out Craig, and apparently not enough voters were so disgusted by Sanford’s behavior to recall him (assuming recall is possible in the state).
If we the people have become inured to political scandal, perhaps we can be understood if not forgiven: politicians are shameless, and media thrive on attempting to shame them: a beautiful friendship. Thus politicians will almost always try to survive the scandal through crisis-management and/or denial, and media will be tempted to generate a scandal even when one may not be there. Weary, we watch the spectacle but are not scandalized.
Much that occurred on Bush’s and Cheney’s watch might qualify as scandalous: Cheney’s meeting with cronies from the energy industry; torture; revealing the identity of a spy; lying about WMD and Al Qaeda/Iraq connections. But Bush and Cheney never paid a cost for any, all, and other scandals. Arguably, the GOP paid a price later, but (for example) if McCain had been a better candidate with a better campaign, he might well have defeated Obama in spite of Bush-baggage.
The same goes for Clinton’s “sex scandal”; he didn’t pay the ultimate professional cost.
That for each of these scandals, a mountain of counter-rhetoric quickly grew, may help to account for the lessened impact and consequences of each. Thus many think Cheney was right to claim executive privilege and not release notes; “waterboarding isn’t really torture”–it’s an “enhanced interrogation technique” [calling George Orwell!]; Joe Wilson was really at fault, and Rove slips through the prosecutor’s fingers; “the best intelligence” suggested there were WMD; Clinton was lying just about sex, and the Republicans persistently hunted him, so let him stay in office; and so on. For Republicans, FOX News often serves as a counter-rhetoric generator, and Clinton had plenty of defenders (including Geraldo Rivera regarding the alleged Arkansas land-scandal).
After Watergate, the politicians seem to have gotten a lot better at playing the scandal-game; indeed, they turned it into a game, one we watch.