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The Insiders
Posted at 08:11 AM ET, 06/21/2012

Payback is not good politics

The Fast and Furious scandal took a dramatic turn yesterday as the U.S. House of Representatives voted in committee to hold the U.S. attorney general in contempt.

This is the wrong fight at the wrong time for the attorney general. The Wall Street Journal has an excellent editorial explaining some of the facts and legal issues of this case, and today, Dana Milbank has a clear piece in The Post from another point of view.

But Holder is playing to lose if the GOP will let him. The public generally has a bias toward more disclosure rather than less when the government has to account for its actions. And in this case, there is a dead American law enforcement officer, killed because of government failure or incompetence, which demands a full explanation. Just using the words "executive privilege" as an excuse to withhold information about government failures on this scale is a loser with the public.

But arguing in a partisan fashion is a loser for Republicans. Already there are GOP leaders who want to promote what they're doing, not just on the merits of the matter at hand, but by asserting that the Democrats were much worse in their treatment of the Bush Justice Department. That is not a reason to aggressively pursue this tragedy. No Republican or conservative commentator should even raise it. The notion that this is partially motivated by political payback is very damaging to what very little credibility Congress has today, and the approach is belittling to agent Brian Terry, who was killed, and unfair to his family.  Also, by the way, it's the worst political move Republicans can make.

There are so many mutual feelings of unfair treatment among Republicans and Democrats that overreaching and over-acting has become the norm. The public tunes out when something becomes just another partisan squabble. Why isn't this more obvious to GOP leaders?

One other very serious matter, the explosive disclosure of national security documents by the Obama administration, is quickly turning partisan and is therefore less corrosive for Obama. Partisan harangues also give the White House an excuse for foot-dragging and gives Democrats in Congress a cover, both for their inaction and having to acknowledge the harm done and the obvious guilt of senior officials in the Obama administration. Republicans have already produced a side-by-side talking point paper to help explain how differently this matter is being handled than the Valerie Plame investigation that ensnared the Bush White House. Why would Republicans actually publish a payback explanation cheat sheet? Not one voter will decide how serious this is and who is to blame based on our lingering grievances about the stale, remote Plame matter. We are doing what our opponents want us to do when we pursue this matter in any way that looks like we are motivated by the desire for payback.

As Haley Barbour always reminds us, the best politics is good government based on good policies. Well, payback is a poor management tool and it is not good policy. And, oh by the way, it is the worst politics possible among fed-up voters who are already suspicious of everyone in Washington's motives, especially those in Congress.

Let's play these matters straight. Let's stick to what has happened in these disasters and not compare our actions now to what Democrats did in scandals past. We are helping Obama and the Democrats slide off the hook.

By  |  08:11 AM ET, 06/21/2012

 
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