Darrell Issa Is a Useful Bully
Last week's Senate Intelligence Committee report on the attack in Benghazi, Libya, is the latest repudiation of Representative Darrell Issa's efforts to sensationalize the diplomatic security failure in Benghazi and transform it into a political scandal. It follows similar exposures of Issa's efforts to distort the "Fast and Furious" fiasco along the Mexican border and transform that into a political scandal. Of course, Issa's work in both those instances pales before his entrepreneurship in personally manufacturing the "scandal" at the Internal Revenue Service, which, like so much of Issa's endeavors, appears destined for the political junkyard.
Issa, the head of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wields his chairman's gavel like a switchblade. His recklessness is feared.
But is he effective?
Not, of course, if you consider Issa's goal to be actual "oversight" or "government reform." Whatever that means, Issa achieves little of it. If there is actual malfeasance under way in the Barack Obama administration -- and what administration doesn't have some? -- Issa seems to have completely missed it.
Unlike reporters, however, voters don’t draw a salary from watching Congress; their attention, understandably, is intermittent. Most voters probably heard some form of Issa's accusations about the White House directing the IRS to punish small Tea Party groups. (Never mind the logic; these groups have been the Obama administration's staunchest if unwitting allies, helping Democrats to retain control of the Senate. A more credible charge would have had the White House funneling secret contributions to local Tea Party groups to further empower them.) If you get your political news in the 10 minutes you're waiting for your dental hygienist, the notion of a liberal Democratic administration trying to destroy conservative Tea Partiers might seem perfectly plausible.
To many, it evidently was. A Gallup poll last June showed 50 percent of U.S. adults -- including 54 percent of independents -- believe that "high ranking" members of the Obama administration were at least aware of "conservative targeting" by the IRS. It's doubtful many ever heard the less sensational follow-up: that Issa had specifically requested that the IRS inspector general "narrowly focus" his report on IRS scrutiny of conservative groups alone. That's why "progressive" and "Occupy" groups that were also targeted by the IRS were left out of the inspector general's report -- and the news.
When Obama generated his own problems last fall with the botched rollout of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, leading to sudden scrutiny of the president's false assurances that consumers who liked their insurance plans would necessarily be able to keep them, the revelation sat atop a layer of insinuations, distortions and exaggerations previously generated by Issa and his gang. It's hard to gauge whether, or how much, Issa's dishonesty paved the way to a wider sense that Obama is untrustworthy. But it seems likely that all of Issa's preliminary smoke might have made the actual fire seem worse.
Issa will never be president. Given Democratic dominance of his home state and his own bizarrely sketchy character, he is highly unlikely ever to rise to the Senate. He has little credibility left with the news media and others paid to observe his antics and listen to his bombast.
But like an enforcer on a hockey team, his lack of talent is Issa's primary asset. His role is to rough up opposing players and accept the lack of respect that comes with it. He seems to retain the confidence of Speaker of the House John Boehner, whose spokesperson, Michael Steel, gave the game away in lauding Issa's "serious, fact-based" oversight. (It's a rare committee chairman for whom words such as "fact-based" constitute flattery.) Issa's a cheap-shot artist and a political thug. But he seems to be a valued member of the team.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)