It’s a tale of two political realities — and this week, President Obama signaled that he won’t be cowed by the picture of scandal and coverup painted by hyperpartisan House Republicans and their enablers in the right-wing media.
On Wednesday, the president elevated Susan Rice, who has been the focus of conservative outrage over the incorrect talking points she offered about the Benghazi attack, to national security adviser.
That move was met with surprise bordering on shock in Fox News land, where the administration is depicted as rocked by growing scandal as GOP investigators raise critical new questions hinting at a Benghazi coverup or suggesting White House complicity in the IRS mess.
In the real world, however, where conclusions are based on evidence rather than assumptions, those mismanaged messes stop well short of revealing nefarious doings by the White House. The administration clearly thinks that the Benghazi story in particular has run its course. The president is essentially betting that instead of making House Republicans’ investigatory efforts more relevant, Rice’s elevation will reveal it as a ceaseless partisan obsession.
Obama sent a related signal on Tuesday by holding a high-profile Rose Garden event to nominate three judges for the D.C. Court of Appeals. The message there is even more explicit. The White House intends to shine a brighter light on the Senate minority’s foot-dragging on its nominees.
Here’s what it means. While not rebuffing the House’s investigatory efforts, the White House will neither be consumed or deterred by the storyline of scandal. Instead, the administration will proceed with its own agenda.
“They are not going to be intimidated by the Republicans’ focus on this stuff,” says one politico familiar with the White House’s thinking. “They are going to put out their own message.”
That’s part of a larger judgment Obama’s team is said to have made.
“They like Speaker Boehner, but he can’t control his own members, and they can’t deal with the ideologues in the House, so they’ve concluded that if they want to get anything done, they’ll have to get it done around Congress,” says Phil Johnston, former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.
In its push-back against the GOP’s alternative reality, the White House has been helped by the dubious behavior of the GOP’s lead inquisitor, California Representative Darrell Issa, who on Sunday called White House spokesman Jay Carney “a paid liar” on national television. To state the obvious, Issa’s over-the-top accusation doesn’t bespeak a dispassionate quest for truth by a responsible congressional investigator but rather the combative mindset of an ultra-partisan.
House leaders are obviously uncomfortable with that remark; though Issa told Politico he “didn’t hear anything” about it, the website reports GOP leaders have sent the message that he needs to tone things down.
That intemperate outburst underlines this reality: The Republican leadership has tethered itself to an exceedingly loose cannon, one who first makes incendiary charges — and then goes about trying to prove them.
Issa has already made clear what he believes about the IRS mess: It was all about “targeting the president’s political enemies” and directed out of IRS headquarters. But honestly, would any fair-minded investigator make such a charge absent any proof?
Now, to be sure, the IRS mess is an appropriate area for congressional oversight. Further, the agency’s wasteful spending has given the GOP a rich target. But if Issa’s probe continues like the congressional version of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce without revealing any serious, systemic wrongdoing, national Republicans run a very real risk of a backlash.
Over in Fox News land, where contributors and guests regularly talk of administration lies and declare that Obama has lost the confidence of the American people, some bafflement is in evidence that the president’s poll numbers are holding up.
Actually, it’s not that complicated. The average American isn’t inclined to believe the worst of a president the country recently reelected. The longer congressional Republicans portray him, without compelling or even credible evidence, as a Nixon-like figure at the center of a vindictive administration embroiled in twin coverups, the more skeptical voters will become about their true motives.
Americans aren’t stupid. At some point, insinuations and accusations will no longer be enough.
Facts and evidence will be required.