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.