Farce and furor

    The partisan showdown over Fast and Furious is a classic case of Washington dysfunction. The House Republicans think they have the political advantage, the White House thinks it has the political advantage, but the truth is that most 2012 voters – especially independents with scant affinity for either party – will likely roll their eyes and ignore the whole farce and furor.Rightly so. Most Americans are focused on the economy, not on whether Attorney General Eric Holder is right to withhold some documents (as opposed to the 7,600 documents he has already handed over) which may or may not shed more light on the failings of Fast and Furious, the botched gun sting operation conducted a few years ago by the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. And most Americans aren’t likely to debate whether President Obama was right yesterday, legally or politically, when he sought to protect Holder by invoking “executive privilege” for the first time in his tenure, in order to shield those disputed documents from House Republican scrutiny.Have I lost you yet? Fast and Furious is a household phrase only in those households that obsessively monitor conservative talk radio and conservative blogs. It’s clear, of course, that the program was a disaster. The BATF office, expanding on a sting strategy first used during the Bush administration, allowed U.S.-purchased weapons to pass into the hands of suspected gun smugglers so that the guns could be traced to the Mexican gun cartels. But BATF lost track of roughly 1700 guns, some of which were later found at crime scenes – including the killing of a U.S. border agent in 2010. Holder has already testified about the program on Capitol Hill nine times.But House Republicans have sought to leverage the program for political gain, conflating Fast and Furious into a metaphor for Obama’s supposed incompetence/corruption/duplicity/whatever. That cake was baked from the outset, when the House Oversight chairmanship was handed to Darrell Issa, the car alarm magnate who claimed even before taking the gavel that Obama was leading “one of the most corrupt administrations” in history. (Was this guy asleep during Watergate?)Yesterday, Issa’s committee voted to hold Holder in contempt of Congress, for refusing to hand over the latest batch of documents – the first time a sitting attorney general has ever been found in contempt. (The committee vote was strictly along partisan lines. Natch. The full House will vote next week.) This is a triumphant moment for denizens of the Republican right, who have long hated Holder for all kinds of reasons – but swing voters are surely far less titillated. In terms of the big picture, that’s what really matters. Swing voters already view the congressional Republicans with disdain; as the polls have long indicated, Issa and his partisan colleagues are the most unpopular players in Washington. Forcing a constitutional confrontation with the Obama administration will merely reinforce the perception that the House GOP is insufficiently focused on the kitchen-table economic issues that most voters care about. That doesn’t help Mitt Romney. He wants to talk exclusively about our economic ills (albeit with vague or non-existent solutions), and ideally he’d like all the party soldiers to march in sync with his message. Every day that the House GOP obsesses anew on Fast and Furious is a day when the party soldiers are off message.Which is why the Obama White House seems comfortable fighting the House GOP on this issue. But the political optics for Obama aren’t necessarily great, either. It’s true, of course, that presidents have long invoked “executive privilege” to shield material from the legislative branch – George Washington was the first, in 1796 – and that the last 10 presidents, in both parties, have used it as well. But Obama raised the bar for himself, at the outset of his tenure, by promising that his administration would be “the most open and transparent in history.” And when he was a candidate, he chided President Bush for tending “to hide behind executive privilege every time there’s something a little shaky taking place.” (Bush invoked the tradition on four occasions.)But now that Obama is doing it, we’re seeing the usual Washington choreography where both parties switch sides on an issue. Republicans are banging on Obama for invoking the privilege, claiming that he must surely have something to hide – conveniently forgetting that they defended Bush when he invoked the privilege. And Democrats are standing with Obama on this one, denouncing the Issa probe as a witch-hunting distraction – conveniently forgetting that they attacked Bush when he invoked the privilege. It’s possible that Obama might lose points with swing voters – to the extent that they (and we) are paying attention – simply because “executive privilege” is widely viewed as a pejorative, as shorthand for “hiding something.” On the other hand, barring a miracle agreement between the White House and House Republicans, this flap will likely play out in the courts for months or even years, long after the election. The courts have given presidents wide latitude on invocations of executive privilege…would you like me to deconstruct the relevant cases?I didn’t think so.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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