A National Journal story headlined “Darrell Issa Subpoenas Top Obama Political Aide” caught my eye over the weekend. It seems that House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa wants to hear this week from David Simas, director of the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach. In a letter to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Issa expressed “concerns about the illegal use of taxpayer funds to support congressional campaigns during the 2014 elections.”
It’s hardly surprising that relentless Obama critic Issa is seeking to open yet another avenue to investigate—or torture, depending upon one’s perspective—the Obama administration (though this tiny office in the White House probably would have to grow a thousandfold to even begin to be a rounding error in the federal budget).
But this issue does pose an interesting question about how the White House—and by this I mean the Executive Mansion under the direction of Presidents Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Obama—have all managed to have an explicitly labeled Office of Political Affairs. I know of no city hall, state Capitol, and U.S. House or Senate office that expressly labels a taxpayer-funded staff an “Office of Political Affairs.” As an aside, in the State Department and the foreign-policy world, “political affairs” has a meaning that has nothing to do with electoral or campaign politics.
Since Issa and his staff are curious about this beast, they might want to consult a 112-page report of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel from January 2011 titled “Investigation of Political Activities by White House and Federal Agency Officials During the 2006 Midterm Elections,” which found, horror of horrors, that the White House Office of Political Affairs under Bush was engaged in politics. The report even has a short history of the practice, dating back to the naming of an “assistant to the president for political affairs and personnel” in the Carter White House, with an Office of Political Affairs given a specific line item in the White House budget in 1980.
Generally speaking, the White House political office has traditionally served as the political eyes and ears for the president’s operation—essentially a liaison to his party’s national committee, House and Senate campaign committees, and the Democratic or Republican Governors Association—and is engaged in tracking races for the White House. Also involved in the process is the Office of Intergovernmental Relations, which tends to work more directly with mayors and governors. When a president travels, it has generally been the political office that prepares trip books (background) on the relevant political figures, and researches minefields that the president might encounter on the trip.
As I recall, it was Tim Kraft who was the first to hold an explicitly political function in the Carter White House. The operation became substantially larger during the Reagan administration and later. The Reagan-era political shop did a masterful job of bringing potential Senate and even House candidates into the Oval Office for a recruitment pitch from the president, and later shot miles of video of Reagan walking down a portico with candidates for use in their campaign commercials.
From the Reagan administration on, there has been a veritable Who’s Who of American Politics that has served as either directors or deputy directors of the White House political office. This list includes Lee Atwater, Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Frank Donatelli, Bill Lacy, Lynn Nofzinger, and Ed Rollins in the Reagan White House years alone. David Carney and Ron Kaufman served during the George H.W. Bush administration; Doug Sosnik in the Clinton White House; and Ken Mehlman, Matt Schlapp, and Sara Taylor Fagen in the George W. Bush White House. Patrick Gaspard served during Obama’s first term.
On one level, you can consider it little more than truth in packaging. There have been White House staff members performing political chores for as long as there have been White House staffs in existence; labeling them as such is simply calling a spade a spade. However, when you explicitly label an office “political affairs” or have a “political director,” you are basically acknowledging that performing political chores on the taxpayers’ dime is, at least in this case, OK—even if their counterparts in House, Senate, and gubernatorial offices have to maintain what is little more than a charade that they themselves aren’t participating in the same practice.
Democrats were appalled to find out that during George W. Bush’s second term, the White House political operation was providing input on which U.S. attorneys should or should not be reappointed. This is the kind of thing that can happen when open politicking is effectively green-lighted by such a designation.
Whether there should or should not be a White House political office is for someone else to decide, but Issa’s letter reminds me a bit of Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca crying, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”
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