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Could GOP Focus on Scandals Backfire?

Could GOP Focus on Scandals Backfire?

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - June 2, 2013

Handed a trio of controversies embroiling the White House, Congressional Republicans are weaving them together to portray the administration as a partisan bastion with a fortress mentality. President Obama and his top lieutenants, they assert, avoid accountability by intimidating critics, stonewalling investigators, and never taking real responsibility for what goes wrong on their watch.

This week, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee raised an alarm that Attorney General Eric Holder -- who signed off on a search warrant that named a Fox News reporter as a co-conspirator in a leak case -- might have committed perjury earlier this month when he gave the impression he had never sanctioned the potential prosecution of journalists in such investigations.

But Holder’s testimony was vague enough that perjury seems a stretch, raising the question of whether calling the top Justice official a liar helps Republicans achieve their aims -- or risks making their own behavior the issue.

With the field starting to take shape for the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans hope to increase their numbers in Congress. If party leaders have their way, controversy over the IRS targeting of conservative groups and the DOJ’s subpoena of reporters’ records (mixed with the lingering specter of the Benghazi consulate attacks) will consume much of the summer, with the scandals driving a wedge between voters and the president’s party.

That could happen. What also could occur is that the GOP’s zeal could backfire by galvanizing the Democratic base to defend a man they see as being hounded by an obstructionist Republican Party.

A budget deal, among other priorities (including immigration legislation), still hangs in the balance, and Republicans have refused to conference the two chambers’ financial plans. For the 37th time, the House recently passed a bill that would repeal the Affordable Care Act, though they offered no replacement proposals or a strategy for gaining passage in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Republicans aren’t letting up on Benghazi. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa this week subpoenaed emails of Hillary Clinton’s State Department aides in an effort to shed light on the approval of talking points used to describe the attacks. The Republican National Committee has asked for copies of emails sent between the day of the attacks -- Sept. 11 -- and Election Day.

Also this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell revealed a new campaign video  hitting Obama for the IRS scandal and invoking Richard Nixon and his interview with David Frost, remembered for the infamous line “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.”

McConnell, who is up for re-election in 2014 and is mindful of potential challenges from his right flank, has been leading the “culture of intimidation” narrative aimed at the White House.

Criticism of the Justice Department’s probing of journalists is bipartisan, but Republicans, especially in the House, are in the midst of party brand overhaul. As such, they must guard against appearing to be merely on the attack rather than taking constructive legislative action.

In this case, however, Holder is making it inviting for them to do the former. In a recent interview with the Daily Beast, he expressed concern about his department’s policies when it comes to investigating journalists, and aides said the attorney general felt “remorse” over the episode. When testifying earlier this month on the DOJ’s seizure of Associated Press journalists’ phone records (a case from which he had recused himself because the FBI interviewed him regarding the corresponding government leak investigation), Holder never mentioned the possibility of similar warrants in which he was involved. He invited several media outlets to participate in a review of the DOJ’s procedures involving reporters, but insisted it be off record. Most of the outlets declined to participate.

Holder, though, has been the GOP’s punching bag for much of Obama's tenure -- as most attorneys general are for the opposing party. Last year, for example, House Republicans voted to hold him in contempt of Congress (the first of such charge ever lodged at a sitting AG) for failing to produce documents related to a botched federal gun-trafficking operation.

Now, Republicans believe Holder lied to them when he said his department has not prosecuted a journalist under the Espionage Act. Though it is true that Fox’s James Rosen, whose State Department source reportedly gave him classified information about North Korea, has not been prosecuted, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte and senior member Jim Sensenbrenner have several questions. Among them: Did Holder ever intend to prosecute Rosen? If not, why did his department name Rosen as a co-conspirator? Did that mislead the judge who signed the warrant?

Ranking Democratic member John Conyers said Holder had been forthright and did not mislead the committee. “Certainly, there are policy disagreements as to how the First Amendment should apply to these series of leak investigations being conducted by the Justice Department, and that is and should be an area for the committee to consider,” Conyers said. “However, there is no need to turn a policy disagreement into allegations of misconduct.”

But Democrats haven’t exactly been rushing to Holder’s side, either. And the attorney general has irked progressive Sens. Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren, who recently asked the DOJ why no one involved in the 2008 Wall Street meltdown has gone to jail.

“I think the attorney general is flying solo right now,” says Linda DiVall, a Republican strategist and pollster. “I don’t think House Republicans are the news right now; it’s the attorney general’s actions.”

Targeting Holder in this case, some strategists believe, helps Republicans build a case against the administration without taking personal hits at Obama. “Criticizing the attorney general doesn’t carry the same emotional impact on voters as a direct attack on the president,” says Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist and an aide to John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. “Even though Obama’s approval rating is not particularly high, voters still personally like him. So a direct attack on the presidency is always a riskier approach unless there is specific, concrete evidence” he was directly involved. 

The president and Holder are close friends, and White House spokesman Jay Carney says Obama continues to have full confidence in him. The question, though, is whether the controversy has become a liability for the president’s agenda.

Rep. Tom Price, among the more conservative members of the House, wrote about the trio of controversies in a Washington Examiner op-ed: “There never seems to be a particular person responsible when everything goes horribly wrong. In Fast and Furious or the secret probing of journalists' personal communication records? Not Attorney General Eric Holder's responsibility."

“Am I asking too much that the top prosecutor in the country not mislead Congress?” Trey Gowdy, a Republican member of the Judiciary Committee and a former federal prosecutor, told Fox News. “If you take what he said and then contrast that with what he did and what the department did, he's either so absent from the job that he has no idea what's going on or there would be a more nefarious explanation, which we will get to the bottom of.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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