Darrell Issa Stars as Captain Louis Renault

The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is “shocked” to learn the White House has a political office.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 16: Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) strikes the gavel at the beginning a House Oversight Committee hearing concerning the security of the Healthcare.gov website, in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, January 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. During the hearing, Teresa Fryer, chief information security officer and director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' Enterprise Information Security Group, told the committee she would now recommend full operational and security certification for the Healthcare.gov website. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
National Journal
Charlie Cook
July 14, 2014, 5:53 p.m.

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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