They’ve been stacking up this month like NASCAR racers at Talladega or bumper cars at the local amusement park. It’s not clear whether this will just be a three-car accident for the Obama administration or whether others will plow in behind. But as the saying goes, “three’s a crowd.”
And while each mishap has its own etiology and departmental locus – CIA, Justice, State, Treasury -- the favored narrative (i.e., conventional wisdom) is that they are all part of an Administration that has lost drive, energy, focus, purpose, and, perhaps, its moral compass -- demonstrating a penchant for serving political interests first and national interests second.
In particular, some of the more predictable opiners are beginning to whisper Watergate, code for any imbroglio in which an Administration willfully uses agencies for narrow political and electoral purposes.
And if you look cursorily and superficially at each of the three stories – Benghazi, IRS ‘hazing,’ or the broad sweep of the AP phone record subpoena – it doesn’t look good.
Add to that the rolling anger that lingers about the Obama presidency, and you have the makings of a new level of unpleasantness and vitriol that the country needs like the NFL needs more reports of early dementia from retired players.
It doesn’t take an army of bottom feeders and political bombasts to create a polluted political environment, but one is growing in size and influence these days. We’ll refrain from naming names, knowing that that would simply be a gratuitous swipe at the low-hanging fruit.
Suffice it to say that we are witness to a collision between some slipshod, misguided or errant acts by officials inside the Obama administration and a take-no-prisoners, draw blood first – ask questions second, facts-be-damned modus operandi by a band of freelance members of the opposition who will seize any opportunity to discredit people and destroy careers in the service of future electoral victories.
For those who were sentient and paying attention forty years ago when the Watergate dike burst, or more recently during the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra debacle, it is instructive to recall how challenging and divisive those times were – when partisanship played out daily on the front pages and the network broadcasts, and when citizens’ faith in government was beginning to erode around the edges.
But that was then.
In both eras, adults were still present in sufficient measure in the Congress, not everywhere, but in enough positions of leadership that when it came time to act on behalf of the nation, and to put party and partisanship on the shelf, it could be done.
During Watergate: Sam Irvin, Howard Baker, Daniel Inouye, and Lowell Weicker in the Senate; and Peter Rodino, Lawrence Hogan, Barbara Jordan, Hamilton Fish, Paul Sarbanes, Bill Cohen, Elizabeth Holtzman, and others on the House Judiciary Committee.
During Iran-Contra: Daniel Inouye, Warren Rudman, David Boren, Bill Cohen, Sam Nunn, Paul Sarbanes and George Mitchell in the Senate; Lee Hamilton, Henry Hyde, Tom Foley, Mike DeWine (and Dick Cheney) in the House.
This is now and adult behavior is the exception, no longer the rule. Intensely partisan polarization and the caucus-as-compass have replaced regular order and fundamental respect for the institution, thanks to a powerful, asymmetric composition of legislative Luddites who believe they were sent to Washington to destroy the machinery of democratic governance and to decapitate those who would compromise.
So, it’s up to the President to take action, to move swiftly, to demonstrate a capacity to ‘fire, ready, aim’ on behalf of the country, even if it means removing good people who are tainted by association or who lack the requisite gravitas and have become ‘surplus assets,’ ‘damaged goods,’ or both.
And here’s where the naming of names serves a public purpose.
The President has started smartly by forcing IRS Acting Commissioner Steven Miller out the door. Next should come division director, Lois Lerner, and presumably others who were part of this scheme. Whether and to what extent Miller and Lerner are responsible for the charges that have been alleged is no longer the issue. They are in the spotlight in one of the most citizen-sensitive bureaucracies in government, and to preserve the integrity of an otherwise honorable agency, and to assure the citizenry that there is zero tolerance for questionable activities, doing this with dispatch is the only option.
Next, the President should encourage his very capable Attorney General, Eric Holder, to seize the moment to return to the private sector. Not because Holder is a ‘wrong-doer’ or incompetent, but because the Justice Department has meted out a punishment to the Associated Press that neither fits the crime nor honors the process by which previous administrations and news organizations have negotiated differences of this sort. The fact that Holder had recused himself from this action is both irrelevant and vexing at the same time, and particularly because the department has been unable to find the supporting document that records his recusal.
In addition, for reasons that do not point directly at Holder himself, he’s a growing liability for the administration – a contempt of Congress citation for the “Fast and Furious” debacle; and the considerable political fallout from his recommendation to hold a criminal trial in the civilian system in New York City for Khalid Sheik Mohammed rather than a military tribunal in Guantanamo (his boss blinked on this one.)
Though his ill-tempered response to Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) at yesterday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing is easily understood, if not wholly appropriate given the setting, the Attorney General looked low on fuel and short on resilience – not like someone who was relishing the prospect of another four years as punching bag.
In the White House, three additional steps would send signals to important constituencies (while riling others): replace his Congressional Liaison, Miguel Rodriguez; remove Valerie Jarrett from her substantive and policy roles in the White House; and replace his Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough.
Even before this trifecta of troubles took center stage, the Obama presidency was off to a tepid start on the second term. Whether accurate or not, there was a perception that the president was floundering – tired from a grueling campaign, facing four more years of a Tea Party-infused political environment, unable to make headway on the sequester, gun control initiatives, tax reform, incoherent on Syria, inert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, issuing one too many ‘red lines,’ and more.
It does not help that President Obama finds himself dealing with a restive press corps resentful from four years of a back-of-the-hand, dismissive treatment that has become the administration’s communications policy trademark.
Taken together, and knowing how quickly laissez les bontemps roulez can become laissez les mauvais moments roulent in a town where schadenfreude is the default emotion, the President is well advised to overreact.
Nixon didn’t; Reagan did – thanks to the unlikely partnership of Nancy Reagan and the Democrat’s Bob Strauss.
For Reagan, it began with firing Don Regan and recruiting Howard Baker. And for Obama, nothing less will suffice. He needs horsepower and deep experience in his Chief of Staff – a John Podesta, Donna Shalala, Bruce Babbitt, or even Vernon Jordan.
He needs to separate friends from governance, moving Valerie Jarrett from Counselor to the President to Friend of the First Family.
And while it’s not clear whether any mortal could be a successful Congressional liaison for this President with this Congress – not even a Bryce Harlow, Max Friedersdorf, or Larry O’Brien – he can do better and he must. Strength, agility, and chutzpah are essential, as is the ability to eat crow and chew gum at the same time.
There’s more, but there’s not much time in which to act. Everything about this moment will be counterintuitive for the community organizer and constitutional law professor in Barack Obama. He’ll need some help from strong friends, eminence grises (if they exist) and not from those inside the White House who, we are told, see the fifth face on Mt. Rushmore when they look inside the Oval Office.
America needs a successful presidency and the only person who can deliver it is the President himself.