Politics & Policy

Sunday Amateur Hour with Dan Pfeiffer

Obama’s spokesmen follow their boss’s lead — of faux outrage coupled with denial.

I have long wondered what David Brock’s specious propaganda outfit, Media Matters for America, would look like if, rather than shilling tirelessly of its own volition, it were brought into the White House’s official fold. Not much different, I’d venture. It could even keep its color scheme.

Still, having watched the nice-but-hapless Dan Pfeiffer chase his tail around five of the Sunday shows this weekend, one can’t help but conclude that the president could do worse than to ask Brock’s machine to come on board. Pfeiffer’s bumbling, haywire — occasionally even honest — approach was no more effective in pushing back against the wave of scandals than White House press secretary Jay Carney’s has been. If the president is to ride this out, he needs a bulldog — a fearless and industrially disciplined champion of the status quo who can do for the administration’s public relations what Rahm Emanuel did for internal order. Dan, let’s just say, is not the man for the job.

So poor was Pfeiffer’s performance that even his best moment was reported as his worst. Discussing the IRS fiasco on ABC’s This Week, he told George Stephanopoulos that in this matter “the law is irrelevant.” In some quarters of the Right, this was disingenuously represented as a Nixonian claim of executive immunity. But zoom out beyond the sound bite and you’ll see that, the clumsy execution to one side, his intent was clearly to argue that the IRS’s behavior would have been intolerable even were it legal. It’s got to hurt to be slammed for attempted magnanimity.

At a moment in which precision was imperative, Pfeiffer brought inexactitude. “Where there is doubt, may I bring faith,” Francis of Assisi asked us to pray. This weekend, the White House managed the opposite. If you didn’t think it mattered where President Obama was on the night of the Benghazi attacks, your interest might have been piqued by his adviser’s insistence that it is an “irrelevant fact” that is “offensive” even to inquire about.

The IRS’s behavior, he emoted, was “an incredible breach of the public’s trust,” “outrageous,” and “very serious.” “Inexcusable,” even. Here, Pfeiffer followed the president’s example in trotting out the usual Words of Indignation. Nonetheless, he remained unable to make up his mind as to whether or not there was actually any scandal worth being upset about. This is just Republicans “looking to make political hay,” he claimed on Meet the Press. You see,

What they want to do when they are lacking a positive agenda is try to drag Washington into a swamp of partisan fishing expeditions, trumped up hearings, and false allegations. We are not going to let that happen. The president has got business to do for the American people.

Pfeiffer accused the GOP of indulging in a “fishing expedition” repeatedly throughout the day. But if he really believes this, then one has to ask why he and the president are ostensibly so “angry” with the IRS — and for what exactly the White House will not stand.

“I will not tolerate it and we will make sure that we find out exactly what happened on this,” Obama fumed in a recent press conference, before announcing a fishing expedition of his own. Channeling his boss, Pfeiffer told Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace that the administration will “investigate,” “get the facts to make decisions,” and then make sure that “everyone who did anything wrong here is held accountable.” All well and good. But those politicians who’ve shown the temerity to say that we should do exactly those things? Beyond the pale.

When Pfeiffer acknowledged that the scandals were worthy of consideration after all, he sought primarily to distance the president from them. This led to the risible sight of a senior adviser to the commander-in-chief simultaneously insisting that his boss doesn’t have time for these scandals on the grounds that he has a government to run (the perennial refuge of leaders under siege) and promising earnestly that the president doesn’t know about anything that goes on in that government from whose operation he must not be distracted. Look, Pfeiffer told CNN, switching tack violently once again, “What would be an actual real scandal in Washington would be if the president had been involved or had interfered in an IRS investigation.” Somewhere, Schrödinger smiled.

Pfeiffer ranged so far into denial that at one point he suggested that the president shouldn’t even be commenting on the matter: “You do not do anything to give off the appearance of interference in an independent investigation,” he claimed. Anything! At this, those who followed the Trayvon Martin and Skip Gates cases presumably spat out their morning coffee — as, one imagines, did Steven Miller, the acting IRS director who was fired last week.

After he had been issued one too many invitations to see the president as a powerless victim, CBS’s Bob Schieffer pushed back. “I don’t mean to be argumentative here,” he disclaimed for some reason, before becoming argumentative there:

But the president is in charge of the executive branch of the government . . . When the executive branch does things right, there doesn’t seem to be any hesitancy of the White House to take credit for that. When Osama bin Laden was killed, the president didn’t waste any time getting out there and telling people about it.

In response, Pfeiffer agreed that the president was indeed in charge and had reacted strongly.

But there is being in charge and then there is being “in charge,” and, as David Axelrod assured us last week, this president is firmly in the latter camp. What realistic chance does the president have, asked Axelrod, of controlling America’s “vast” government? In other words, those silly groups that argue that when government gets too big it inevitably becomes unmanageable weren’t targeted because they said that when government gets too big it inevitably becomes unmanageable. No, they were just victims of the fact that when government gets too big it inevitably becomes unmanageable.

On Benghazi, Pfeiffer showed signs of being stuck in the same time warp as Jay Carney and the more dogmatic members of the progressive Left. As his press conferences still demonstrate, Carney has yet to notice that saying “Republican invention,” snidely mentioning “Fox News,” or implying that “politicians” are making a “political issue” out of a political issue is no longer sufficient to get him into the Kingdom of Press Absolution. His colleagues fare no better. Pfeiffer tried manfully to pretend that this was Republicans “playing politics.” But it is not, and everybody knows that it is not.

Nor will it do to repeat that the government was waiting for “the facts” before ascribing a motive to the Benghazi attack. On Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer brushed aside Pfeiffer’s performance of this defense, assuring him that he wasn’t “here to get in an argument with you about who changed which word in the talking points and all that” and then — again — getting into an argument with him about the talking points. “The bottom line,” Schieffer said, “is what [Susan Rice] told the American people that day bore no resemblance to what had happened on the ground in an incident where four Americans were killed.” “With all of these things,” Schieffer continued, pushing in the knife, “when these things happen, you seem to send out officials many times who don’t even seem to know what has happened.”

“Is he referring to Susan Rice or to Dan Pfeiffer?” I wondered.

A few seconds later, Schieffer made himself clear: “I mean this as no disrespect to you, why are you here today? Why isn’t the White House chief of staff here to tell us what happened?”

Ouch. Amateur hour is over, Mr. President. It’s time to call the machine.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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