Rep. James Sensenbrenner: “Tell me what’s the difference between lying and misleading Congress, in this context?”
Attorney General Eric Holder: “Well, if you want to have this legal conversation, it all has to do with your state of mind and whether or not you had the requisite intent to come up with something that would be considered perjury or a lie.”
— Exchange from a House hearing on the Operation Fast and Furious gunrunning sting.
Celebrity cabinet members are rarely helpful for presidents.
They can, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has done, lend their credibility and esteem to an area where a president is perceived as weak. But more often they become distractions.
Such is the case with Eric Holder, who turned in a snappish, hair-splitting performance in his latest round of testimony before congressional Republicans irate over his agency’s handling of a gunrunning sting in the Southwest.
Holder sounded like he was dissembling as he discussed the legal definition of perjury when pressed about his department’s evolving responses to inquiries into Operation Fast and Furious, in which agents lost track of the weapons they sent into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
He also played martyr, invoking red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy to attack his chief inquisitor, Rep. Darrell Issa, asking if the California Republican had “no shame.”
Holder did worse than in his last round of questioning and he will likely do worse the next time as he visibly chafes at being badgered by Republicans who he believes are only interested in political gain. The problem for Holder is that the underlying case and initial response from his department look just dreadful. The more he bristles, the more attention will come to the botched sting.
But as the pressure builds from the right, liberals are rallying to Holder’s defense. He is an increasingly revered figure on the left for not just what they see as his victimization by Republicans but also his status as the liberal conscience of an administration so many liberals have found wanting.
While President Obama is seen as caving in to public opinion with his policy on terrorists, overseas interventions, drone killings and the continued operation of the prisoner of war camp at Guantanamo Bay, Holder has been there fighting to close the prison and trying to import the inmates for trial in civilian courts.
Holder has also been forcefully opposing state laws designed to reduce the number of illegal immigrants and voter fraud, taking a hard-line stance on issues many Democrats believe are the return of Jim Crow laws in disguise.
These things may make Holder more popular on the left and establish him as the favorite cabinet member of the self-styled Washington intelligentsia, but they only make him more of a lightning rod out in the rest of the country, where Obama must now, as his press secretary put it, “venture forth” in an effort to get people to vote for him again.
But Obama can’t lose Holder before the election because it would simply reinforce the doubts and disappointments of the left with the president they once believed would be their champion.
Who would have guessed that Hillary Clinton would be Obama’s least troublesome celebrity cabinet member?
Americans Know Gingrich Well, for Good and for Ill
“I am a cultural teacher, with a political campaign to change a government. And that’s how I see myself.”
— Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in an interview with the New York Times explaining why he continues to hold promotional events to sell books instead of campaigning or raising money for his cash-strapped campaign.
Only 43 percent of registered voters saw Gingrich as “presidential,” while 57 percent saw the current office holder as fitting that description and 53 percent saw Romney the same way.
Gingrich edged out Romney and beat Obama on being “a strong leader,” held his own on being seen as “patriotic” (beating Obama, losing to Romney) and “smart” (beating Romney and losing to Obama) and was 13 points ahead of Romney as being a “true conservative.”
But the place where Gingrich lost were painful losses.
Gingrich was seen as “phony” by 40 percent of voters, one point worse than Obama and 4 points worse than Romney, who has been called a phony by Democrats and his Republican foes for years.
On being “caring,” Gingrich trailed half-billionaire moneyman Romney by 18 points and famously aloof Obama by 24 points. Worse, on being “honest,” Gingrich scored only 40 percent, 17 points behind Obama and 14 points behind Romney.
It all adds up to Gingrich’s low score on being “presidential.” Another word for that could be “plausible.” When Americans think about someone being presidential, they think about the ordinary and ceremonial things – representing the nation at summits, throwing out first pitches, reviewing the troops, etc. – and extraordinary things – leadership at a time of crisis, talking to them from the Oval Office in times of darkness, having the power to destroy the world, etc. They can’t see Gingrich in the big chair.
That wouldn’t be such a problem for a candidate about whom less was known, as Bill Clinton puts it “not famous yet.” Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton would have all fared poorly at one time in this measure, mostly because they were little-known figures. They had time to introduce themselves and pass the presidential plausibility test.
Peggy Noonan writes in today’s Wall Street Journal that Gingrich is the first modern presidential contender “about whom there is too much information.”
Gingrich has been the most recent beneficiary of conservative angst about the moderate, technocratic Romney, based on the essence of his humble brag to a South Carolina radio host: “I don’t claim to be the perfect candidate. I just claim to be a lot more conservative than Mitt Romney and a lot more electable than anybody else.”
And polls do show that Gingrich, who is already well known, especially to older voters, starts with some serious advantages when it comes to persuading middle of the road voters in the general election.
But, he also has the disadvantage that his negatives are well known, too. Gingrich has little chance to reshape public opinion about his honesty, authenticity, charity, and plausibility. Unlike with the previous GOP boomers Cain and Perry, it’s hard to argue that Gingrich could overcome early negative perceptions as Americans came to know him.
The former speaker’s negatives are like fossils from the Cambrian era – very old and clearly etched on solid rock. And the Romney campaign is working hard right now to put every nasty trilobite on display. If Gingrich survives that, he would likely enter the general election with higher negatives than any presidential challenger of the modern era.
His best hope and his central claim of electability hangs on one idea: that Americans are so freaked out right now that they will ignore their reservations about Gingrich’s character and plausibility and give him the big job on the basis that he is a dynamic leader brimming with revolutionary ideas.
It may sound more plausible than Cain’s claims to Republicans, who are indeed very freaked out about the future and desperate to beat Obama. But that’s still one hell of a bank shot.