When Darrell Issa called Jay Carney a "paid liar" this week, his critics figured he'd finally gone too far—that his one-step-ahead-of-the-facts rhetoric would force Republicans to rein him in.
They figured wrong.
For all the polite Washington handwringing over that single comment, the truth is this: Issa’s aggressive approach is just what the Republican House leadership wants.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor singled out Issa for praise at a closed-door GOP conference meeting on Tuesday. Hours later, Cantor gave him plaudits on national television, saying on CNN that Issa and other GOP chairmen investigating the IRS were doing “a fantastic job.”
Indeed, top House Republicans are lining up behind the Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, even as it becomes clear that Issa is stretching the evidence to support his claim that the IRS’s targeting of tea-party groups was directed from Washington.
For the GOP, the focus on Obama administration scandals is a welcome reprieve as they work to unite a fractious conference ahead of what’s expected to be a summer of divisive debates, including raising the debt limit and taking up a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
“Chairman Issa is providing tough, effective, and appropriate oversight in the face of White House obstruction,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.
Democrats see it differently. They say Issa has prejudiced the IRS investigation by declaring on CNN on Sunday that the targeting “was coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters and we're getting to proving it.” Issa, they argue, is following his well-worn path of lobbing accusations first and then searching for evidence to back them up later.
“It’s hard to trust someone who makes assertions on which he has no basis to make [them],” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., on Tuesday. Hoyer also called on Issa to apologize to Carney.
But the Republican leadership has Issa’s back. “I think he’s been very measured and I think he has to be very measured,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who leads the House GOP’s political operation as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Privately, top Republicans say they do regret that Issa called the White House spokesman a “paid liar.” “I think you have to choose your words carefully—and I’ll leave that where it is,” Walden said. But they have nonetheless publicly closed ranks around him.
“The issue is not one member’s choice of a few words,” Walden added. “The story is about the incredible, outrageous abuse by the IRS that’s been documented so far—and we’ve only just begun.”
At a press conference Tuesday, Cantor twice declined to denounce Issa’s name-calling. Instead, he said, “There’s been an abuse of trust on the part of this administration toward the American people.”
For Issa, who has relished his role as the House’s chief Obama watchdog, it all adds up to a very loose leash. While Issa has denied hoping to rope top White House officials into the IRS scandal—“We've never tried to tie things to the president, tie things to the Cabinet officers,” he stated Sunday—he said in the same interview, “My gut tells me that too many people knew that this wrongdoing was going on before the election.”
Democrats complain of Issa’s selective use of evidence to bolster those preconceived “gut” feelings. On Sunday, Issa released only selected chunks of the transcribed interviews that his panel and the Ways and Means Committee had conducted with IRS officials. And he shared the excerpts on national television before giving a copy to committee Democrats—a breach of decorum and protocol, Democrats say.
After the program aired, a frustrated Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the oversight panel, dialed up Issa and demanded copies of the transcripts, according to a Democratic aide. The Maryland Democrat had seen this playbook before. Before a recent Benghazi hearing, he had accused Issa of keeping panel Democrats in the dark about interviews with a key State Department witness, Mark Thompson. “They have leaked snippets of interview transcripts to national media outlets in a selective and distorted manner to drum up publicity for their hearing,” Cummings said at the time.
In both cases, Issa achieved a big media splash, followed by a few later ripples of context from Democrats. “Issa’s M.O.: Accuse, Then Try to Prove,” Cummings’ staff titled a memo to the media Monday.
For Republicans, Issa’s investigative pursuits have been an internal and external success. He is helping write a narrative of an overreaching, overbearing, and unaccountable executive branch—and uniting the GOP at the same time. Targeting President Obama, after all, is something nearly every Republican can agree on.
“It’s the Obama IRS,” Cantor said Tuesday.
Some in GOP leadership even suggest that the 2013 iteration of Issa is more restrained and disciplined than when he first took the gavel in 2011, despite growing Democratic shouts of Republican overreach.
Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., the chief deputy whip and a member on Ways and Means, said there have been no complaints about Issa at the leadership level.
“Both committees are letting facts speak for themselves,” Roskam said. “The feedback that we’re getting from the public is positive, the feedback we’re getting from our members is positive.”