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Politics / Commentary

‘Witch Hunt Season?’ Try Witch Hunt Era

I’m sorry, but can we talk turkey – I mean, Darrell Issa—for a moment? Is there any fair and balanced news commentator (honest ones, that is, not the Fox News version) who doubts what this guy is all about? Rep. Issa himself has made no pretense of his intentions: Nail Barack Obama first, raise Issa’s profile second (or maybe that’s first), and get at the truth last.

Even before he took over the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, with zero evidence in hand, Issa called Obama “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times.” In his relentless search for evidence (and headlines) since, he has found nothing to back up that statement, making him look like a buffoon.  (Even the Solyndra scandal turned out to be a question of incompetence, not corruption, as Issa himself has admitted.)

As Issa told my former colleague Susan Davis for her definitive profile of him in National Journal last year:  “I’m a salesman.… What I’m selling is the awareness of a product.” By “product,” Issa apparently intended to mean his committee’s investigations. But clearly the main product he’s selling is Darrell Issa.

 

And now, having managed to tease out a loose string involving the Justice Department’s botched “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking program, he’s dragged the House leadership along in voting to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. All in a continuing search for Issa’s personal white whale: evidence of White House corruption.

As a reporter,  I’m no defender of Holder—most recently I wrote  that he was “gaining a reputation for passivity in a number of investigations,” including of Wall Street and the BP Oil spill. And Issa’s Democratic predecessor, Henry Waxman, was as partisan as he is. But at least Waxman was somewhat effective, as was a Republican committee head, former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia. (For example, with their probes into steroids in baseball; the Bush administration’s ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff; and the Army’s cover-up of Pat Tillman’s death).

Not so Issa. As Davis wrote,  “Beyond its investigation of Fast and Furious, his committee hasn’t recorded any big hits despite firing—or misfiring—at almost anything that moves.”

In the current probe, Issa and the other Republicans on his committee have told melodramatic tales suggesting that border agent Brian Terry may have been a victim of the guns that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lost sight of when it created its misbegotten sting program intended to trace weapons to Mexican drug cartels. But in their singular effort to find evidence that the Obama White House tried to cover up Fast and Furious, as Dana Milbank pointed out in The Washington Post on Thursday, the documents they are demanding are “only those since February 2011 — two months after Terry was killed and the program was shut down.”

All of this has engaged the passions of nearly every Republican in the House, helped along by their mouthpiece, Fox News, on which the ineffable Michele Malkin declared yesterday that the Obama administration "let [the guns] go because they had an underlying gun-control agenda." Rep Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat on the committee, expressing the views of most Democrats, called the Holder contempt vote a political witch hunt and added, “It’s witch-hunting season, and it won’t be over until November.”

But Maloney had that only partly right. It won’t be over in November. It’s been going on for many Novembers. Strident House Republicans have been on one continual witch hunt since the 1994 takeover of the House.

We all remember the endless (and fruitless) Whitewater investigation and the Monicagate scandal that emerged from it, like the monster baby in the cult movie Eraserhead. But perhaps you have forgotten all the furor in the late ‘90s when, helped along by misleading reporting by The New York Times, Republicans on the Hill pursued an endlessly snowballing series of pseudo-scandals. They began with allegations that President Clinton had corruptly permitted Democratic donor Bernard Schwartz, then head of Loral, to sell satellites to China, and culminated in the investigation into supposedly stolen U.S. nuclear secrets by a Taiwanese-American scientist, Wen Ho Lee.

One GOP-led witch hunt directly to the another. The Loral satellite scandal so intrigued Newt Gingrich, then the House speake--who stopped just short of publicly accusing Clinton of committing treason for money--that he set up a $2.5 million commission headed by Christopher Cox, R-Calif., to look into it. It was the Cox Commission that later fed The Times its Wen Ho Lee stories; the commission’s final report concluded hysterically that for more than 20 years China had stolen secret information on every nuclear weapon in the United States arsenal.

Ultimately, all of these scandal stories collapsed. Completely. No charges were ever brought against anyone in the Clinton administration, and no one resigned. Bernard Schwartz was exonerated of all wrongdoing when the Justice Department “turned up not a scintilla of evidence—or information—that the president was corruptly influenced by [him].” Wen Ho Lee was exonerated of spying charges; he pleaded guilty to a single count of mishandling classified data and received an apology from the judge for having been shackled and jailed in solitary for a year.

Congressional charges that the Clinton administration had been remiss in pursuing the spy investigations petered out as well—especially as it became clear how troubled the Wen Ho Lee case was, and that the president had in fact ordered a revamping of nuclear security the year before, in 1998. The Cox report was discredited for its over-the-top allegations about the dangers of a Chinese spy network.

What is going on here? Longtime think-tank scholars Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann make a persuasive case in their new book,  It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, that as the Republican Party has moved ever more rightward—apparently trying to stay ahead of the Democrats as they shifted to the center—it “has become an insurgent outlier in American politics.” They say the GOP is no longer capable of compromise, and therefore of effective government.

Ornstein and Mann trace the problem back to Gingrich and another ‘90s figure who has captured the party’s heart (or perhaps its manhood): Grover Norquist, whose no-tax pledge “has led to other pledges, on issues such as climate change, that create additional litmus tests that box in moderates and make cross-party coalitions nearly impossible.”

And Issa, like other Republicans in solid red districts, seems not bothered in the least that a new Gallup Poll of confidence in government, while it shows waning faith in most major institutions including the presidency and Supreme Court, puts Congress in a distant last place. Respondents who evinced either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the presidency amounted to a mere 35 percent; in the Supreme Court, 37 percent; and in Congress, an embarrassing and bottom-scraping 12 percent.

How low can Congress go? Bring on the witch hunts and we’ll see.

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