The New Beltway Fantasy: Appointing IRS Special Counsel Would End GOP Obstructionism

New York Times columnist Bill Keller thinks President Obama should appoint failed Whitewater sleuth Kenneth Starr to investigate the Internal Revenue Service's improper scrutiny of conservative groups. And yes, Keller adopts the conventional wisdom that so-called scandals in recent weeks have “knocked” Obama's “second term off course.” (Public polling suggests otherwise.)

But let's now marvel at the columnist's fantastic claim that if Obama appointed that special counsel the partisan clouds would magically part in Washington, D.C. and Congress and the press, would suddenly focus on the nation's pressing duties. Keller insists the “scandal circus on Capitol Hill is a terrible distraction” and that a special counsel would allow Beltway players to “turn their attention to all that unfinished business,” such as immigration reform and passing a budget.

This is part of the pundit fantasy school of writing that has been persistent throughout the Obama presidency and it goes like this: If Obama would just do X (i.e. schmooze more, be less partisan, appoint a special counsel, or just lead), Republicans would cooperate with him legislatively because Republicans are honest brokers who have a deep desire to address the nation's most pressing issues. And the only real obstacle to progress is the fact that Obama can't figure out what makes Republicans tick. He just doesn't get it.

It's that mindset that leads to posts like the one from Keller, suggesting that if the president would move to further criminalize the IRS controversy, that would somehow lower the partisan temperature and would allow Republicans to get back to what they really want to do, which is work with the president to pass pressing legislation.

What Keller conveniently ignores is that Republicans have already made it obvious that they don't matter what the Obama does, it doesn't matter what personal approach he takes, they're going to oppose him across the board.

How else would Keller explain the GOP's historic opposition to emergency relief for Hurricane Sandy? The GOP's historic opposition to the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense? The GOP's refusal to pass gun legislation that enjoyed nearly universal support among Americans? And the GOP's mindless, time-wasting obsession with trying to "repeal" Obama's health care reform?

Let's take a closer look a recent example of radical Republican tactics and place it in the context of Keller's claim that a special counsel would produce Congressional productivity.

On May 9, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee was scheduled to vote Gina McCarthy's nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency out of committee and send it to the Senate for a full vote. But thirty minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin, Republican notified Democrats that all eight Republican members were boycotting the vote, thereby making it impossible to move McCarthy's nomination forward. Republicans complained that the nominee hadn't sufficiently answered questions submitted by committee Republicans, even though she had already responded to more than 1,000 written queries.

In the end, McCarthy was approved by the committee, but the Republican stalling tactics represented, “an unprecedented attempt to slow down the confirmation process and undermine the agency,” as former Republican Congressman Sherwood Boehlert recently lamented.

That's the backdrop for Keller's declaration that appointing a special counsel to spend months investigating the IRS would eliminate partisan wrangling and clear the way for cooperation.  

It's pure Beltway pundit fantasy.