In a déjà vu moment, Official Washington seems to be following the old script from the early years of Bill Clinton’s administration with almost identical results.
After winning the White House in 1992, Democrats chose to ignore major crimes of the prior Republican administrations – apparently as a gesture of bipartisanship – only to have Republicans offer no reciprocity, stage a quick electoral comeback and then launch congressional investigations into trivial Democratic misdeeds.
That’s what is shaping up again as Republican reclaim control of the House on Wednesday with promises to conduct investigations that will put the Obama administration further on the defensive and will reinforce the dominant GOP narrative that “government is the problem.”
So, instead of examining the sweeping deregulation of Big Banks and the perverse incentives on Wall Street – as culprits in the financial collapse of 2008 – Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican taking over the House Oversight Committee, has vowed to turn the congressional spotlight on the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in supporting loans to homebuyers.
In other words, we can expect the economic crisis to be laid at the door of government-supported efforts to help Americans buy homes, rather than the massive private corruption in the securitizing of sub-prime loans offered by "shadow banks" and then traded by Wall Street firms in reckless gambling.
Similarly, Issa will target government regulation – rather than the consequences of unwise deregulation – as the cause for high unemployment.
On another front, instead of exposing the government deception and wishful thinking that trapped American troops in two botched wars, Issa plans to go after the Obama administration for not attacking WikiLeaks more aggressively over its publication of classified government records.
Another Republican chairman, Rep. Peter King of New York, has vowed to use the Homeland Security Committee to examine not the abuse of Muslim prisoners captured in George W. Bush’s “war on terror” nor the dangers created by Islamophobia, but the supposed radicalization of Muslims in the United States. [See Washington Post, Jan. 4, 2011.]
King’s hearings are shaping up as a kind of show trial for an entire ethnic/religious community not seen in modern U.S. history.
All these investigations can be expected to provide scoops for Fox News and other right-wing media outlets further benefiting Republican candidates in 2012 when the GOP expects to consolidate its control of Congress and reclaim the White House. If the experience of the Clinton years continues to be predictive, the mainstream news media will eagerly clamber onto the right-wing bandwagon in pursuit of scandal stories.
This latest turn of the page on the GOP’s old get-Clinton playbook was, of course, not unexpected. What remains extraordinary is how clueless the Democrats continue to be about the importance of official investigations in educating – or mis-educating – the American people.
Good and Bad Investigations
Historically, some congressional investigations – like Sen. Joe McCarthy’s probes into “un-American activities” – have been witch hunts designed to frighten the public and intimidate dissenters, but others – like the Watergate hearings and Sen. J. William Fulbright’s examination of the Vietnam War – have helped Americans understand serious abuses of government power.
Indeed, those Vietnam-Watergate experiences of the 1970s convinced Republicans that they needed to be more aggressive in defending the political flanks of their leaders and in taking the fight to the Democrats when the opportunity presented itself.
Another reaction to those investigations was the determination of wealthy conservatives to build their own right-wing news media and fund attack groups to go after independent-minded mainstream journalists.
As the years wore on, Democrats began shying away from investigations that might exacerbate the capital’s partisan divide. The Democrats largely shunned the oversight and informational side of governing in favor of funding and defending social programs.
This combination of factors enabled the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to avoid timely examinations of their increasingly secretive foreign policies. For instance, it took years for the clandestine Iran-Contra operations to be exposed and even then the Republicans quickly put the Democrats on the defensive with Reagan’s aide Oliver North emerging as a folk hero to many.
In a related case, Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, undertook a brave investigation into drug trafficking by the Nicaraguan Contra rebels and – despite substantial evidence corroborating those suspicions – the Washington news media chose to mock Kerry as a crazy conspiracy theorist, or as Newsweek put it, a “randy conspiracy buff.”
Because of those experiences, Democratic leaders further concluded that hearings aimed at informing the public about Republican wrongdoing were not worth the risk. It became safer for Democrats to actually join in debunking allegations against Republicans no matter how well supported those accusations might be.
That became the case with the Iraq-gate scandal of secret Reagan-Bush-41 support for Saddam Hussein’s regime and with the inquiry into whether Republican secret dealings with Iran dated back to before Reagan took office, to a pre-election effort to undermine President Jimmy Carter’s hostage negotiations with Iran, the so-called October Surprise mystery.
Though those two scandals – along with the Iran-Contra investigation – were still alive when Clinton defeated Bush-41 in Election 1992, the Democrats moved to bury what they regarded as “ancient history” and to hope for some measure of gratitude from the Republicans.
When I approached members of the Clinton administration and congressional Democrats, I was told that I shouldn’t be “obsessed” about getting to the bottom of those scandals and that it was time ”to leave them to the historians.”
After all, one of Clinton’s favorite slogans was “politics is always about the future,” and his campaign theme song urged voters to “don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
The failure to demand an accounting of the crimes and other abuses committed during the Reagan-Bush-41 years didn’t gain the Democrats any Republican thanks, however. Republicans still voted in bloc against Bill Clinton’s budget and many of his legislative priorities. They joyfully sank the health care proposal which had been crafted by Hillary Clinton.
Also, by freeing up the Republicans from playing defense for Reagan and Bush-41, the Democrats enabled the Republicans to shift quickly to offense. The growing right-wing news media began hammering away at Bill and Hillary Clinton’s personal finances, as well as their troubled marriage.
The Democrats did not just let the Republicans off the hook regarding historic abuses of power. The Democrats did not simply fail to gain any reciprocity for this gesture. Their assistance in covering up Republican crimes actually boomeranged on them, as GOP lawmakers cited the “bogus” accusations against Reagan and Bush-41 as justification for the scandal-mongering against the Clintons.
The excitement on the Right and the demoralization on the Left also set the stage for a Republican takeover of the House and Senate in 1994.
Once in charge of Congress, the Republicans stepped up their investigations, coordinating them with right-wing special prosecutors selected by a panel of GOP partisan judges who were appointed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and were led by right-wing Appeals Court Judge David Sentelle. The Clintons and many of their allies were hounded endlessly over petty offenses.
Eventually, the climate of suspicion brought out information about Clinton’s sexual liaison with Monica Lewinsky, which in turn led to his impeachment in the House in late 1998. Though Clinton survived a humiliating Senate trial in 1999, Texas Gov. George W. Bush rallied his supporters in Campaign 2000 with promises to restore “honor and decency” to the Oval Office.
After the election, Bush muscled his way to a tainted “victory” by getting five Republican justices on the U.S. Supreme Court to shut down the vote count in Florida and award him the presidency. Despite the extraordinary spectacle of Bush claiming the White House although losing the popular vote to Democrat Al Gore, the Democrats made no push for an official investigation.
The Democrats continued to sit back as Bush enacted a right-wing agenda of massive tax cuts for the wealthy and further deregulation of powerful corporations. Though they had narrow control of the Senate, the Democrats went soft on investigating the pre-9/11 intelligence failures and staged only pro-war propaganda hearings on Bush’s demand for an invasion of Iraq.
Bush “rewarded” the Democrats for their cooperation by accusing them of not caring about national security, a charge that contributed to a stunning Republican victory in Election 2002. With the GOP then in charge of both houses, there were no major investigations of Bush-43’s malfeasance and misfeasance, though the public was growing increasingly skeptical of the President’s actions.
Even the Democratic victory in 2006 didn’t open any floodgates on investigations into the Bush administration. Essentially, Democrats moved cautiously out of a presumed fear that any aggressive attempt to hold Bush accountable might be perceived as overly partisan and prompt a backlash from the right-wing media and some independent voters.
That timid approach carried over into 2009 after Barack Obama was elected president. He discouraged any examination of Bush-43 crimes, urging the country to “look forward, not backward.” He apparently hoped that this gesture would be rewarded with some Republican cooperation in addressing the severe economic and national security problems that Bush left behind.
Like Clinton before him, Obama couldn’t have been more wrong. The Republicans pocketed his concession on investigations of Bush and stepped up accusations against Obama.
When Obama spoke to American children at the start of the 2009 school year – urging them to work hard at their studies – he was denounced for abusing his position and engaging in Orwellian mind control.
It seemed like no Republican accusation against Obama was too over-the-top: He “lied”; he was a “socialist”; he endangered U.S. national security. Former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter, Liz, denounced Obama for supposedly aiding and abetting terrorists by declassifying some documents about the torture protocols that Bush and Cheney had put in place.
And, as with Clinton, the Republicans did all they could to sabotage Obama’s legislative agenda, voting in bloc to sustain Senate filibusters against dozens of bills and confirmation of his appointees.
The resulting anger against Obama that was stirred up on the Right and the disappointment afflicting the Left contributed to a major Republican electoral victory in 2010, just like in 1994.
Now, the stage is set for Act Two of the Clinton script as Republicans prepare to flood the Obama administration with subpoenas and to use whatever material they gather to wage an information war against the Democrats.
“The ability to hold hearings is a tool to help shape public opinion … and maybe allow you at the end of the day to get concessions from the administration,” former Republican Rep. Vin Weber told the Washington Post.
For his part, Rep. Issa has already declared the Obama administration to be “one of the most corrupt” in American history. His goal now will be to squeeze out any evidence to support his conclusion.
Looking back at the last two decades, it’s hard to find any areas of differences between the Republicans and the Democrats as sharp as the contrasting approaches toward congressional investigations and the effective use of information (or propaganda).
The Democrats do all they can to look the other way when the evidence of Republican wrongdoing is out there (even when Republicans admit their criminal behavior, as Bush and Cheney have done on torture). Meanwhile, the Republicans will happily turn investigative mole hills into mountains to advance their ideological and partisan agendas.
However, neither approach -- the Democrats seeing no evil or the Republican hype of mini-scandals -- serves the interests of the American people.
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