Sometime today, while the media and political worlds are totally and completely absorbed in the Supreme Court’s healthcare ruling, the United States House of Representatives will vote to hold the attorney general in contempt. On any other day, this would be a seismic political event, the first time in American history that a Cabinet member has faced such a rebuke. But today, it will essentially be a footnote.
It’s hard to read this timing as an accident.
The contempt vote was scheduled by John Boehner, who has spent his 18-month run as speaker trying to balance his more pragmatic political instincts with his caucus’ zeal for ideological absolutism and partisan warfare. He hasn’t had much room to maneuver – Boehner came to the job as a D.C. lifer, not a Tea Party outsider, so the base has constantly been on the lookout for signs of betrayal – but he does what he can to temper his party’s most self-destructive impulses.
Today’s vote is a good example.
The drive to hold Holder in contempt grew out of an attempt by conservative leaders, activists and media outlets to turn the tragic death of U.S. border patrol agent Brian Terry into a political scandal involving the Obama administration. On the right, the Fast and Furious story has been a huge deal for well over a year now, but it wasn’t until the last few weeks that Americans who aren’t regularly exposed to Fox News or conservative talk radio heard much, if anything, about it. And now that Fast and Furious is attracting real media scrutiny, the basic premise – that ATF agents intentionally permitted guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug gangs -- is crumbling, as a new Fortune magazine report thoroughly explains.
What’s left is the right’s determination to pin something, anything on the Obama administration – and Holder, its top target among Obama Cabinet officials from the start of his presidency, in particular. The contempt vote, after all, isn’t even about the circumstances that led to Terry’s killing; it’s about vague, unsubstantiated suggestions that the Justice Department engaged in some kind of political coverup after the fact. Conspiracy theories enter the picture here, with the numerous Republican congressmen – including the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Darrell Issa – and the NRA claiming that the administration tried to arm Mexican drug gangs in order to create a tragedy that would build momentum for domestic gun control efforts.
When the GOP began playing up the Fast and Furious program, some in the party may have believed – or hoped – that it would produce a scandal that would derail, or seriously wound, the administration. But that’s not going to happen. By this point, the Holder contempt vote is simply a matter of base maintenance for Republicans; their voters and some of the most important interest groups aligned with their party are demanding this, so they’d better deliver.
But outside of the Republican universe, it’s a much different story, one that increasingly carries a risk for the GOP of being too closely associated with right-wing paranoia. There’s a good chance Boehner recognizes this, but there’s only so much he can do about it. Because the issue is so important to his base, he has no choice but to hold a vote. Failure to do so would imperil his speakership.
He also can’t lash out too harshly at the conspiracy theory being pushed by Issa and the NRA. Too many on the right believe it. Asked at a press conference yesterday if he thinks there’s any evidence Fast and Furious was a secret administration plot to advance gun control, the speaker said, “I’ve never indicated that that was the case. I don’t know whether that’s the case, because we don’t have the documents.” That’s about as close as he can come to saying, “It’s nuts and I don’t want our party associated with that stuff.”
What Boehner does have control over, though, is the House schedule. And with the Holder vote, he did what any weak House speaker who is constantly on-guard for an intraparty mutiny would do in this situation: gave the base what it wanted, but in a way that guarantees the smallest possible audience of non-Republican voters will know about it.