Ambition v. Ambition

Issa, Holder, and a little Madison.

The whole Fast and Furious confrontation between Representative Issa (and, by extension, the House of Representatives) and Attorney General Holder (and, by extension, the executive branch) makes me think of the following passage by James Madison from Federalist 51:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

Emphasis mine.

Madison is here describing the nature of separation of powers and checks and balances.  “Department” in context means the executive, legislative, and judicial branches (although the discussion in question is focused on executive-legislative relations).  The notion here is the linkage of the personal political ambition of politicians to the collective ambitions of said departments.

There is little doubt that at least one of Issa’s main motivations is partisan politics.  Likewise, there can be little doubt that that Obama administration is motivated by protecting the president’s re-election prospects.  Those political ambitions and interests are manifesting as an inter-branch conflict over power, with the House putting pressure on the executive, and the executive seeking to defend itself.

At the end of the day, there is little doubt that this is all political, but then again isn’t, by definition, everything that takes place in government political?

On the one hand, I must confess to a negative reaction to congressional fishing expeditions that appear born from not from concern over policy, per se, but rather partisan animosity.  However, on the other, shouldn’t the congress be holding the presidency’s collective feet to the fire over matters of policy?  Regardless of anything else, Fast and Furious was a poorly conceived and even more poorly executed policy.  Stepping back from initial reaction, I have to wonder if the public interest isn’t ultimately better served by more fishing expeditions, rather than by less.  Fishing frequently produces garbage, to be sure, but sometimes it results in a great catch.

Since the focus here is a a policy, I can see little wrong about the congress wanting more information, even if Issa’s motives are not wholly founded in concern over policy only.

Regardless of anything else, there is plenty of ambition on display here.

I will say this:  in terms of electoral politics, I have my doubts that the Fast and Furious situation will have much impact on the election.  I think that it will continue to rile consumers of certain media outlets, where I suspect that F&F (along with other things) will be touted as impeachment-worthy activities (indeed, have been for a while now, I think).  As a practical political matter, said consumers will hardly be voting for Obama in November.

Quite honestly, apart from the policy aspects of the discussion, the thing I find most problematic about Fast and Furious is that it is a piece in the game of narrative construction on places like Fox News where the goal to cast everything into not only the worst possible light, but to do so in a way that makes everything sound scary and nefarious.   It would be nice (he noted wistfully) if policy could be criticized and analyzed in a reasonable way, even in he partisan media.

The real lesson of Fast and Furious should include better public understanding about the the harsh realities of the violence in Mexico, the real problem of gun smuggling into Mexico from the US, and (most importantly) the ongoing failure of the drug war as policy.  Instead, we are going to get Democrats defending executive privilege, and Republicans hating on it (despite the fact that the roles were exactly reverse when Bush was president—because in this case, both sides do, indeed, do it).  Meanwhile Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and friends are going to make the whole thing sound worse than Watergate.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    I

    will say this: in terms of electoral politics, I have my doubts that the Fast and Furious situation will have much impact on the election. I think that it will continue to rile consumers of certain media outlets, where I suspect that F&F (along with other things) will be touted as impeachment-worthy activities (indeed, have been for a while now, I think). As a practical political matter, said consumers will hardly be voting for Obama in November.

    No minds are changed by any of this. In fact, I’d go so far as to venture that if Obama is re-elected and Republicans still control the House, that Republicans will use F&F and Obama’s recent Immigration pronouncement as the basis for an effort to impeach the president.

  2. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    I’m just a bit unclear on your message here. Is it “Nothing to see here. Business as usual. Move along.” ? Or is it that the real problem here is so big and wide that we would have to review the republic from its inception ?

    While Fred Astaire might find your footwork fancy, I don’t. There are piles of bodies out there that seem to be beyond your ken. Unless that’s what you mean by “poorly executed”.

  3. @11B40: My fundamental point is twofold: 1) that struggles of this nature are inherent to the system, and 2) that while political ambitions may be motivating Issa more than anything else, that hopefully the net result will not be just petty politics.

    There are piles of bodies out there that seem to be beyond your ken. Unless that’s what you mean by “poorly executed”.

    Yes, but unfortunately, those bodies would be piled up if F&F had never existed. The cartels were going to get their guns one way or another and to pretend otherwise is to rationalize this as a different kind of scandal than it is.

  4. 11B40 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Greetings, Mr. Taylor:

    I appreciate your clarification, but I still find your singular focus on Representative Issa’s “ambition” as opposed to Attorney General (and Eric is an honorable man?) Holder’s motivation(s) troubling. The latter’s demonstrated history of what is acceptable political behavior leaves serious doubt in my mind about the honorableness of his motivation(s).

    Similarly, your surety about the piling up of those unfortunate bodies regardless of the “Fast & Furious” policy is not something I can share.

  5. @11B40:

    Well, I mention Holder in the first sentence and I make reference to the exec branch. If I was just focusing on Issa, I suppose the post would be entitled just “Ambition”–the whole point of “Ambition v. Ambition” is that both Issa and the administration (Holder/Obama) are motivated by their own ambitions.

    Similarly, your surety about the piling up of those unfortunate bodies regardless of the “Fast & Furious” policy is not something I can share.

    You are certainly entitled to your opinion. However, I would submit that your position utterly ignores the nature of the drug war in Mexico. The notion that these guns were unique in some way is logically problematic.

  6. @11B40: I forgot mention: my focus is more heavily on Issa because he is the initiator of the current confrontation.

  7. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I think that perhaps I agree with you about more fishing expeditions. The current one looks especially politically motivated since it really is only major Congressional expedition going on right now, and because Mr. Issa has a history of playing rough and tumble. Were there more expeditions, the Administration could hardly refuse cooperation with all of them. As it is, the Administration’s response seems to me political but hardly unexpected.

  8. mattb says:

    @11B40:

    Similarly, your surety about the piling up of those unfortunate bodies regardless of the “Fast & Furious” policy is not something I can share.

    As Steven said you are entitled to your opinion, but I likewise think this ignores the reality of the situation.

    Put a different way, there was not similiar operation allowing knives and machetes to flow across the border and yet numerous beheadings and body mutilations have taken place as a direct result of the Mexican Drug War.

    Might some additional murders have taken place due to a few more weapons? Possibly. But those 2000 weapons represent a small percentage of a far, far larger pool of illegal firearms in Mexico.

  9. Dazedandconfused says:

    I quite agree, Steve.

    However, fishing expeditions into the pond of internal communications written by people dealing with investigations and cases against organized crime is problematic. A degree that makes a difference. Ambition without honor is bad stuff.

  10. @Dazedandconfused:

    Ambition without honor is bad stuff.

    But isn’t the fundamental problem? Ambition does not always come with honor.

    If men were angels, and all that.

  11. Dazedandconfused says:

    Oops. I see it now. I didn’t read the OP carefully enough. I’m off topic.

  12. KariQ says:

    This is a sordid little mess and no one in it is going to come out looking good. If you are completely comfortable with either Issa’s or Holder’s behavior, then all you are revealing is that partisanship is your driving force.

  13. Tlaloc says:

    Instead, we are going to get Democrats defending executive privilege

    Not this guy. Wouldn’t piss on Obama if his hair were on fire. Which granted has nothing to do with the F&F kerfuffle, but after asserting a right to order assassination of “enemies” at his own discretion I’m not inclined to defend anything this president does.

  14. 11B40 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Greetings, Mr. Talyor:

    Quoting: “I forgot mention: my focus is more heavily on Issa because he is the initiator of the
    current confrontation.”

    So then, the next time a supervisor/auditor/IG comes by and asks me what I’ve been doing for the last 8 hours/months/years, I should go ahead and advise them that it’s been proven to a philosophical certitude that they are, in fact, initiating a confrontation and provide them with a link to this article ? Mmmm ???

  15. @11B40: The relationship between the congress and the executive on the oversight question is rather substantially different than that of, say an IRS auditor and a citizen.

    Although, in honesty, I am not really sure what your point is.

    What is that you expect me to have done here?

  16. Ben Wolf says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Yes, but unfortunately, those bodies would be piled up if F&F had never existed.

    Ethically I can’t accept this. Whomever is responsible for the transfer of those weapons to known criminals bears some responsibility for the people killed by those weapons. Whether people would have gotten dead by other means does not, I think, absolve one of the consequences: rather the conduct of Fast & Furious suggests a callous disregard for the risks posed to other people.

  17. @Ben Wolf: I can certainly agree that some responsibility for allowing criminals known access to weapons requires some amount of responsibility for the outcome. I suppose the question becomes: how much is some?

    What I am arguing against is the notion, which seems inferred above (and is certainly being made on the talk radio circuit) that F&F caused the death of a Border Patrol agent (or anyone else for that matter).

  18. Ben Wolf says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I suppose the question becomes: how much is some?

    Unless the intent was to get someone killed, I would argue responsibility rises to the level of being drummed out of law enforcement entirely at the very least, possibly charges of criminal negligence. Certainly I would not accept prosecution at the level of murder, but the penalties for such poor decision-making and outright failure ought to be significant.

    What I’d really like to know: Do the people behind this disaster feel any guilt or responsibility over the damage done? Or do their consciences just walk between the raindrops and shrug off an act against the public good which they were supposed to serve? And if so is this now the standard attitude among the D.C. establishment at all levels?

  19. Dazedandconfused says:

    At some point, it’s no longer about gathering whale-oil….

  20. Tlaloc says:

    I find it interesting that the right seems to be pursuing a rather dangerous 2nd amendment course with this line of attack- they are saying in essence that, no, it’s not that people kill people and the wheres and whys of how said person got the weapon to do so are immaterial. Rather they seem to be saying that the person who put those weapons in the hands of the person doing the killing shares responsibility.

    If I owned a gun company I’d be on the phone to the GOP right about now and jerking their choke chain something fierce…

  21. 11B40 says:

    @Tlaloc:

    Greetings, Tlaloc:

    Then again, I’ve read elsewhere that the intent of “Fast & Furious” was to undermine the recently Supreme Court clarified 2nd Amendment by moving weapons over the border to Los Banditos.

    Kind of a if you don’t have a crisis to make use of, then maybe creating one is the next best course of action. Thus, American weapons go to Mexico, are linked to murders in Mexico, Presidente Calderon (whom we don’t seem to hear much from lately about all those American weapons coming across his inviolate borders) strenuously whines to President Obama who comes to the progressive rescue by infringing just a bit on the 2nd Amendment to keep weapons out of the hands of his fellow non-traveller Americans.

    Obviously, this has not currently reached the level of proven fact, and certainly not releasing background documents will help keep things that way.

  22. 11B40 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Greetings, Mr. Taylor:

    I was approaching the situation from a general organizational point of view. The specific you proffer, the IRS and a citizen, was not at all what I had in mind. Most organizations and businesses have some sort internal or external review process wherein work units are examined to see if reports correspond with reality. In a small business, it might be the accountant coming by to check things out. In larger organizations and especially, the government there are internal audits and Inspector General functions. Employees owe these functionaries their cooperation and forthrightness as a part of their basic employment responsibility.

    Attorney General Holder has decided that he owes the Congress, and hence the American people it represents, neither his cooperation nor his forthrightness. He has taken Chairmen Issa and his committee and the aforementioned American people down his garden path for way too long. Regrettably, Representative Issa has enabled a good bit of this DoJ ragtime waltz. Now, it seems Chairman Issa is willing to do more of his job in this regard.

    But, doing one’s job is way different from initiating a confrontation. Mr. Holder initiated the confrontation when he decided to withhold his cooperation and forthrightness from the oversight committee.

  23. mattb says:

    @11B40:

    Obviously, this has not currently reached the level of proven fact, and certainly not releasing background documents will help keep things that way.

    This is a fundamentally dishonest argument (as is the propagation of this stupid conspiracy theory).

    As has been demonstrated time and time again — whether we are talking about Birthers, Truthers, Moon Landing Deniers, Holocaust Deniers, “Magic Bullet” folks — no amount of evidence will every convince people who have already committed to believe that a conspiracy has happened.

    And given the apparent crossover between Fast and Furious/2nd Amendment Conspiracy Buffs and Birthers, pretending that a document dump would satisfy the loudest voices is laughable.

    This conspiracy has very little to do with fact, and far more to do with people who have decided that Obama wants to take their guns (despite little evidence of ACTUAL legislative action to back up such claims).

  24. @11B40: The thing is, I don’t get the impression you are really reading what I wrote (or perhaps I am being unlcear).

    In both posts on this subject, I have questioned and criticized the use of executive privilege and have suggested that the request for documents, even though it is clearly a fishing expedition, might bear positive outcomes.

    Beyond that: it seems that yous main objection is that I am not praising Issa enough and not criticizing Holder enough, yes?

  25. @11B40:

    I’ve read elsewhere that the intent of “Fast & Furious” was to undermine the recently Supreme Court clarified 2nd Amendment by moving weapons over the border to Los Banditos.

    I have seen this “theory” as well and I don’t even begin to understand the logic. If evidence of US guns being smuggled into Mexico and being used was somehow going to lead to a movement towards more gun control, then there would be no need to manufacture said evidence. It has been well established for some time. It has been talked about with some frequency since at least the 1990s and if memory serves, the general phenomenon of guns being illegally smuggled into Mexico goes back to the early twentieth century.

  26. Boyd says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    [US guns being smuggled into Mexico] has been well established for some time.

    Well, there are some, certainly, but it’s also been proved for just as long that the purveyors of such claims selectively published information to make it appear that the vast majority of illegal guns in Mexico came from the US, when it’s been shown over and over and over and over that that claim just isn’t true (known ’round these parts as “a lie.”) They’ve repeated it enough that folks such as yourself believe it to be true. The Big Lie and all that.

    But that’s not why I came here. As usual, the catalyst encouraging me to comment was your characterization of media coverage, implying that Fox News is carrying the burden here because the story is supposedly a right-wing tool to whip the Obama Administration. For those of us who have been following this issue for the past almost-18 months, the main mainstream journalistic effort on Fast and Furious has been CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson. Her work on this topic has been herculean.

  27. Boyd says:

    Sorry, I got distracted and spliced two thoughts together incorrectly. Here’s what I intended to say:

    As usual, the catalyst encouraging me to comment here is somewhat tangential to the main discussion. It regards your characterization of media coverage…

    The “as usual” phrase was intended to be self-deprecating and it came out as an attack on you, which was far from my intent. Again, I apologize, Steven.

  28. @Boyd:

    Yes, there have been exaggerations about the number of guns going to Mexico from the US. However, I am talking about the topic being discussed in legitimate academic sources in the late 1990s back when most discussion of drug cartels in the mass media was focused solely on Colombia.

    And I am not suggesting that only Fox News is reporting on this story or that it is not a legitimate story. What I am saying is that Fox News has been flogging the story as potentially the next watergate for a some time now.

  29. @Boyd: No worries. I took it as critique not attack.

    The think that I am reacting to is that whenever I encountered right wing media (as opposed to the many, many years in which I consumed it daily) is that it comes across as a relentless drum beat of truly horrible actions by Obama. It isn’t just criticism or unfavorable reporting, but it paints a picture of a man who deserves to be impeached or, at a minimum, who never deserved to be president in the first place in a way that attempts not to criticize from a partisan point of view, but to delegitimize.

    Where do you think that these conspiracy theories about F&F being about curtailing gun rigths is coming from?

    F&F is perfect cable TV/talk radio fodder. It has a cool and recognizable name. The basics aren’t all that hard to understand (especially if you reduce to a gun that was being traced ended up in the killing of a border agent). It also features Holder, a figure not liked (to put i t mildly) by the right. And if one spins it sufficiently, it can sound like something that could bring down a president. Fun all around, yes?

  30. Boyd says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Where do you think that these conspiracy theories about F&F being about curtailing gun rigths is coming from?

    I generally deal with conspiracy theories while wielding a rather long-ish pole, but sometimes they’re true (cf “Watergate”). Somebody has to drink the Kool-Aid, à la Woodward and Bernstein, to identify the true conspiracies.

    That being said, we’re not there yet, but there is some evidence that points in that direction. First we have the misrepresentation of facts as we discussed earlier, intended to make people believe that US firearms dealers are the major source of guns used by Mexican drug cartels.

    Then there’s the time that President Obama stopped by a March 2011 White House meeting between Jim and Sarah Brady and Jay Carney where the Bradys were pushing a ban on large magazines. According to Mrs. Brady, the President brought up the issue of gun control, “to fill us in that it was very much on his agenda,” going on to say, according to the WaPo article: “I just want you to know that we are working on it,” Brady recalled the president telling them. “We have to go through a few processes, but under the radar.”

    Not hardly a smoking gun, but certainly evidence of the Administration’s opinion on gun control and trying to keep their actions out of sight.

    Then we have the implementation of the “multiple rifle reporting requirement” for gun dealers along our southern border, implemented by executive action and arguably in violation of the law, as reported by Sharyl Attkisson of CBS News. While it’s not evidence of creating the operation to provide bolster the false “90% of drug cartel guns come from US firearms dealers,” it sure does show that the ATF was certainly willing to use it that way, at least after it was going.

    So it’s not just crazy right-wing ideologues who are suspicious of what’s going on with F&F, and as is often the case, even if the operation “merely” stemmed from incredible levels of incompetence, we’re still left with the old “the cover up is worse than the crime” issue. I don’t think you can dismiss people out-of-hand who believe that Holder is a) extremely stupid and too incompetent to hold the office of AG, b) extremely out of touch with his department, and still too incompetent to hold the office of AG, or c) truly evil with his Machiavellian henchmen controlling the levers of power at Justice. Okay, c) is going overboard, but you get my drift.

    Bottom line for me: Holder and his deputies have said too much that’s demonstrably false. Whether they’re liars or just bumbling boobs, they’re just not the sort of folks we want running such an important part of our Federal government, it seems to me.

  31. Dazedandconfused says:

    I recently saw Alan Simpson say “a lie unrefuted is a lie believed”.

    I suspect Obama naively thinks, or at least thought, this is not a Machiavellian game. “Let them spin crazy story’s, we will hang them later with their own rope if we have to.” Well, the “rope-a-dope” tactical doctrine includes taking a beating, and as somebody quoted Twain recently: “It is easier to fool people than it is to convince them they have been fooled”. Also, perceived weakness can be as dangerous as real weakness.

    Now they have a situation that Maddow called “The great un-Googlible” Anybody who tries to look at this can only find masses of repeated spin from one side. Cummings has said a lot of things as this developed, but those things, even his written analysis, has been ignored.

    http://democrats.oversight.house.gov/images/stories/minority_report_13112.pdf

    Maybe Peter Clemenza would be a person to heed: “You gotta stop them at the beginning” in a game of Ambition v. Ambition.

  32. If men were angels, no [big gulps] would be necessary.

  33. mattb says:

    @Boyd:

    I generally deal with conspiracy theories while wielding a rather long-ish pole, but sometimes they’re true (cf “Watergate”). Somebody has to drink the Kool-Aid, à la Woodward and Bernstein, to identify the true conspiracies.

    Fair point. That said, Watergate involved two, relatively simple, conspiracies:

    (a) G. Gordon Liddy’s initial plan to illegally acquire election intel through break ins.
    (b) The conspiracy to cover (a) up.

    Coverups are typically simple conspiracies, so let’s leave that aside for the moment.

    What causes me to largely discount (until a lot more evidence arises) the F&F Gun Control Conspiracy angle is how COMPLEX the actual plan would have been. We’re talking a super-villian/Rube Goldberg level of complexity. That would be a pretty significant conspiracy — far more complex than the first conspiracy at the heart of Watergate.

    And again, the irony is that to believe in the Gun Control Conspiracy, you need to see Obama and company as a group of ‘master’ planners to have conceived and executed this plan AND kept it quiet for so long — while at the same time running it so ineptly. That fits into the usual Obama critic paradox: on one hand he’s a master manipulator and on the other hand always in over his head.

  34. mattb says:

    @Boyd: Good points/critique across all the posts. One thing struck me:

    As usual, the catalyst encouraging me to comment was your characterization of media coverage, implying that Fox News is carrying the burden here because the story is supposedly a right-wing tool to whip the Obama Administration.

    Part of the problem that faces Fox News (and MSNBC) is that their editorial programming will always trump their news programming. This is, to a degree, the opposite of the last 100 years or so of American Journalism.

    So regardless of whether the story is a right-wing tool to whip the Obama Administration, Fox is explicitly using it as a tool to whip the Obama Administration. And the disservice of this is that once a story becomes used in this way, the actual contents of the story become less important than what the broader story is actually about.

  35. Boyd says:

    @mattb: I disagree that the conspiracy would have to be that complex. First, you have the failed “Wide Receiver” predecessor operation. While it was an utter failure, it could have served as a catalyst for “Hey, why don’t we try this?”

    And I think you’re completely mistaken on how long it was “kept quiet.” The operation began in late 2009. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered in December 2010, which brought the operation to the attention of a significant number of street-level ATF agents, whose grumbles during January 2011 erupted into whistle-blowing reports to Sen Grassley that same month. The first media report on the operation that I’ve seen was the Arizona Republic report on Feb 1, 2011.

    Again, I’m not promoting the conspiracy theory, but I’m merely rebutting your reasoning why it’s unlikely. I tend to think it’s unlikely, too, and certainly unproven right now, but I think your points of how complicated and secret it would have to have been are mistaken.

  36. Boyd says:

    @mattb: Here’s my point regarding media reporting on F&F, Matt. Ignore everything Fox News has to say on the subject. In fact, limit yourself to CBS News reporting. There’s plenty of meat there to piss off gun rights activists, as well as anyone who opposes government corruption.

    At best, this was a stupid idea generated out of the ATF’s Phoenix office, got run up the flagpole in Washington, and was approved. Now the honchos at the top are scrambling around for their Teflon suits and waiting to see who gets left out when the music stops.

  37. mattb says:

    @Boyd: Totally agree with your characterization of F&F. And your correct that other news agencies have done a lot of good reporting on this (despite claims by many that this is any under-reported issue).

    What Steven was saying, and what I agree with, is the specific way that Fox News specifically is using this to forward an editorial agenda to go after the President. If you spend any time watching their coverage, especially on the talk side, the issue is how the story is explicitly being linked to the conspiracy theory and the idea that Obama is planning to take away your guns.

    You’re correct that someone could have built that link through the existing reports. But there’s little question that Fox News hosts are explicitly making that link (or rather inviting numerous “experts” on to make that link for them).

  38. mattb says:

    @Boyd: I see what you are writing about the timing, I disagree, but won’t have the time to put together a coherent response. Sorry ’bout that…

  39. Boyd says:

    @mattb: I see your point. While I used to watch Fox News back in their early days (y’know, back when they were more interested in competing with CNN than their current role of being the “anti-MSNBC”), I no longer watch them at all, and will only occasionally read a news story on their web site if a link takes me there. So I’m speaking from a lack of direct knowledge of their behavior on this, or any other, topic.

    On the other hand, why would anyone here care about what Fox News (or MSNBC) says?

  40. Boyd says:

    @mattb: That’s cool, it’s not like anything we say here is important to anyone but us. And I’m not sure it’s even important to us. 🙂