Nov. 18 (Bloomberg) -- This is a story with a provisional happy ending about how someone can grow when granted real power. I’m referring to Representative Darrell Issa, the 57-year-old California Republican poised to become chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
You might not know his face, but it’s ready for primetime: chiseled like John Hamm’s, with hair colored and sprayed like Bob Dole’s. If you’ve owned a Viper car alarm, you might recognize his voice. The deep bass intoning “Please step away from the car” is Issa’s own, from his days heading up the company.
After being charged twice with auto theft in his misspent youth -- he wasn’t convicted, though he did plead guilty to a separate misdemeanor gun charge -- Issa channeled his interest in autos into protecting them. The sale of his car-alarm company, Directed Electronics, brought him an estimated $250 million.
Like a cheap alarm, Issa sounds off at the slightest provocation. At a hearing in 2008, he said New Yorkers should stop hogging federal health benefits for the Sept. 11 terror attacks, which he summarized as just “a fire that had no dirty bomb in it.”
Savoring the prospect of his elevation to chairman of the committee with broad authority to investigate all manner of government activity, Issa told Rush Limbaugh just before the midterm elections that “there will be a certain degree of gridlock” as Obama “adjusts to the fact that he has been one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times.”
After the elections assured Republicans a majority in the next Congress, Issa vowed to hold “seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks.”
His model seems to be Dan Burton, the Indiana Republican who chaired the committee in the 1990s and buried Bill Clinton’s White House in subpoenas, going so far as to shoot a watermelon in his own backyard in an effort to demonstrate that Vince Foster, a deputy White House counsel who died of a gunshot wound, didn’t commit suicide.
Issa’s bill of particulars include the possibility that the Obama White House improperly dangled enticements before Democratic Representative Joe Sestak to try to keep him from challenging Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania’s Senate primary. A White House report on the matter said Sestak had been approached about serving in unpaid executive-branch advisory roles, and no rules were broken.
Whatever: in Issa’s world, guilt was established long ago. In May, his campaign issued an e-mail with the subject line, “The Sestak Affair -- Obama’s Watergate?” It said a proper probe would yield three felony charges of bribery and corruption.
His discerning eye also saw the image of Obama’s 2008 campaign logo in the signs at construction projects announcing federal stimulus dollars at work.
But a funny thing happened on his way to the gavel. While not admitting he’s wrong about anything, he’s shedding the cloak of Torquemada.
He’s cooled on investigating the global-warming controversy known as Climategate -- alas, not because multiple probes concluded British scientists did not manipulate data, but because other committees with expertise could do it better. On the stimulus, he’ll focus on wasted money, not the signage.
And Issa seems to have lost his passion for Sestak-gate after learning that inducing candidates to drop out is a political tool invented well before Obama. As Kurt Bardella, Issa’s spokesman on the oversight committee, told Roll Call: “This goes back to everyone since Andrew Jackson. If you’re going to go down that road, you have to go back to every administration.”
‘In the Past’
Surely Issa will have to call some hearings to satisfy the base, and pity the people called to that hot seat. But his spokesman, Frederick Hill, says a schedule of hearings is yet to be drawn up, and what’s been said until now is “taken out of context” and “in the past.”
I was surprised to see Issa the other night making himself at home in a room of liberal do-gooders celebrating the 20th anniversary of the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity. He no doubt knows that emulating Burton’s bomb-throwing won’t get him a promotion to the Senate, a post he sought unsuccessfully in 1998. In 2012, he could challenge Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who will be pushing 80.
Just as Issa knows he has to broaden his appeal to rise in statewide politics, the GOP knows that to take the Senate or presidency in 2012, it must surely distance itself from Sarah Palin’s Tea Party and return to the proven strategies of Karl Rove and the party’s center-right establishment.
Dancing With Palin
Consider ABC’S “Dancing With the Stars” as a stand-in for the upcoming presidential primaries. Bristol Palin has made it all the way through the semi-final round despite consistently low scores from the show’s judges. How bad is she? Enough to prompt one outraged Wisconsin viewer to shoot out his television set.
Republican thinking goes something like this: If Bristol could dance all the way to the finals on the strength of the family name, her mother could waltz through the party’s primaries and caucuses.
And that truly would be cause for alarm. I can just hear Issa’s recorded voice: “Please step away from the fringe.”
(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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