Rep. Darrell Issa was almost finished with his question to Attorney General Eric Holder when he suddenly allowed his witness a Moment. That was dangerous. Reporters like Moments. They write our stories for us, and allow us more free time to spend worrying about the stock price of our media companies or whether the hot new Web app will put us out of work again. They’re much less useful for the politicians who make them.
And yet we saw it coming with Issa. When he arrived at today’s House Judiciary Committee hearing, cameramen jumped up for fresh photos of the Benghazi star. The California Republican flashed a smile for them. Halfway through his questions, as he asked Holder to make more e-mails from labor secretary nominee Tom Perez public, Issa couldn’t resist mocking his witness’s answers.
“Our investigators have seen 34 of the 35 emails that violate the Federal Records Act,” said Issa. “They have only seen the To and From.”
Holder apologized, offering one of many surprised-sounding explanations to a question he hadn’t really thought about. “I’m sure there must have been a good reason why only the To and From parts were—”
Issa interrupted him. “Yes, you didn’t want us to see the details.” He briefly broke up with laughter, as did staffers behind him.
Holder pounced. “No, no, that’s what you typically do,” he said, talking over Issa. “No, I’m not going to stop talking now. You have characterized something as—”
Issa tried to assert his fleeting dominance of the room. “Mr. Chairman,” he asked Rep. Bob Goodlatte, “would you inform the witness as to the rules of this committee?”
Holder kept talking. “That is inappropriate,” he said, “and is too consistent with the way in which you conduct yourself as a member of Congress. It’s unacceptable, and it’s shameful.”
A little noise rose from the press and public watching this display—a little embarrassed “Ooooooh.” This wasn’t just drama, it was drama Issa must have been ready for. President Obama’s administration doesn’t like or respect the congressman, at all. Two years ago this week, the White House actually hired a communications staffer who’d been battle-hardened by Senate and presidential campaigns, and gave him a hot portfolio: “matters relating to and resulting from investigations launched by Rep. Darrell Issa.”
Since then Obama and company have treated every Issa request like an incoherent bleat from a crazy person. At a two-question press conference this week, the president derided Congress for obsessing over Benghazi. “Who executes some sort of cover-up or effort to tamp things down for three days?” he asked. Holder himself, later in 2011, had smacked back at his inquisitor by accusing him of McCarthyism. “At some point,” he’d told Issa, “as they said in the McCarthy hearings—at some point, have you no shame?”
In another time—or maybe because they haven’t got around to it yet this time—Republicans would have called these “Saul Alinksy tactics.” Another, simpler term might just be “tactics.” Democrats in the Obama era have always exploited the other side, elevating the people and arguments they can most easily deride. That didn’t quite work in 2009 and 2010. There was a brief moment when Democrats thought voter anger over the health care bill, boiling over in town hall meetings, would be good for the president, because independents would react with horror at the outbursts.
That was an easy mistake. The White House thought that voters would react to angry Tea Party activists the way they reacted to politicians, to members of Congress. They didn’t. But voters still hate members of Congress, and there are plenty of them to mock, and to ask people to mock. As the Benghazi story returned last week, the White House found an unwitting ally in Sen. Rand Paul, who kept admitting that the story was potentially damaging to Hillary Clinton. “I think it precludes Hillary Clinton from ever holding office,” he kept saying. This was supposed to be a Republican subtext. Paul kept writing it in plain old text.