Commentary Magazine


New Black Panthers — GOP Turns Up the Heat

Republicans on the Hill are turning their sights to the mushrooming New Black Panther Party scandal. Two of the latest developments signal the more aggressive stance from Republicans.

First, Rep. Lamar Smith (one of the few congressmen who has diligently hounded the administration for answers about the dismissal of the voter-intimidation case and for its position on enforcement of the civil rights laws) wrote to the president. As Ranking Chair on the House Judiciary Committee, he is asking for a special prosecutor to be appointed not only to investigate the dismissal of a single case but also to determine whether the Obama Justice Department is operating under a “no lawsuits against minorities” rule.

Then on Friday, in the Senate, the GOP members of the Judiciary Committee — all seven, including Lindsey Graham — sent a letter to Committee Chairman Pat Leahy. They list the relevant facts of the case, and they also make clear there is more at issue than a single case. The senators recap testimony that the assistant attorney general for civil rights, Thomas Perez, may have provided untruthful testimony and that the deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights, Julie Fernandes, said that the Department wouldn’t pursue cases with minority defendants and white victims. They conclude that if the allegations are true, the Obama Justice Department is guilty of “politicization and possible corruption.” They demand a hearing. The kicker is subtle and in the final line: “Given the importance of this oversight matter, we believe that holding a hearing on this issue should take priority over other Committee business.”

Are the Republicans threatening to hold up confirmation hearings? Could filibusters be in the future? There is the Elena Kagan vote and also the hearing to fill the No. 2 slot in Justice. (The controversial James Cole awaits his confirmation hearing.) If the Obama administration wants to move forward on its issues and appointments, the Republicans seem to be implying that the stonewall act of Eric Holder, aided and abetted by the slothful Democratic chairmen, must end. Seems fair, right?

Maybe now the mainstream media will recognize that this story is hardly about a single case, as noxious as it was to forfeit a default judgment against blatant violators of the Voting Rights Act. Face the Nation is scheduled to take a look at the matter today. (I wonder if the guests have been warned not to bring up the network’s yearlong refusal to cover the story.) We will see whether the mainstream media perk up and admit there is, in fact, a scandal of significant proportions that needs to be fully investigated.

The Democrats may be more motivated now than they were a month or a year ago to look into the allegations for two reasons. First, if one or both of the houses flip to Republican control, Rep. Lamar Smith will be Chairman Smith, and Republicans will have subpoena power. Perhaps now is the time for the Obami and House Democrats to make amends with Smith, whose requests and inquiries have been repeatedly ignored. There is nothing quite like a new chairman with an axe to grind. Similarly in the Senate, wouldn’t it be better for the Democrats to have a hearing under the protective eye of Sen. Leahy? It’s a big risk to let things build and to hope that all the polls showing an impending landslide are wrong. They could be facing Chairman Kyl, you know.

Second, Congress is soon to recess. What if — like Rep. Brad Sherman — more Democrats are “ambushed” by constituents demanding answers about the case? (Note to Democratic friends: read up about the case; the voters don’t like it when you say you’ve never heard about something because the New York Times didn’t report on it.) Certainly, if confronted by irate voters, Democrats would prefer to say: “Yes, I’m concerned too about equal enforcement of civil rights laws. We sure are going to have a hearing on that. Now, let’s get back to the real issue in the campaign: George W. Bush.” Well, you get the idea.

Even if the media is in damage-control mode — playing dumb about the wider implications of the case — Republicans have no intention of going along with the charade. As a result, an unseemly scandal is about to get a whole lot more attention. Like it or not, the media may be obliged to follow the story — the whole story.