WASHINGTON -- Today’s Republican Party was born in and still pivots around upstate South Carolina, which is why the GOP’s choice of Rep. Trey Gowdy as its congressional poster boy for 2014 explains everything about the party’s midterm election strategy: to burrow into its base, its roots, in an act of mass political cocooning.
Democrats should not assume that this strategy won't work in what is likely to be a low-turnout election.
A former state and federal prosecutor from Spartanburg, South Carolina, the 49-year-old Gowdy has the temperament, credentials and background that fit the angry, accusatory mood of GOP’s conservative faithful, who see the federal government the same way John C. Calhoun saw it two centuries ago: as an evil and a threat to the local way of life.
The Calhoun tradition infused the likes of such fellow South Carolinians as Sen. Strom Thurmond, whose 1948 Dixiecrat campaign presaged Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy”; textile magnate Roger Milliken, who was a founding patron of Bill Buckley's National Review; the late GOP strategist and party chairman Lee Atwater, who played the race-and-culture card to devastating effect against Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988; and former Sen. Jim DeMint, who has turned the Heritage Foundation into a tea party agitprop machine.
When Gowdy challenged a GOP incumbent for his congressional seat in 2010, he did so with DeMint’s blessing. Gowdy is now skilled at the inside game: He says nice things about his fellow South Carolina Republican, and tea party bête noire, Sen. Lindsey Graham. But Gowdy himself is a pure tea party thinker: an anti-abortion, tough-on-immigration “constitutionalist” who thinks that President Barack Obama is a lawless, power-mad enemy of freedom.
For nearly two years, he has been the designated legal attack dog on the Internal Revenue Service and Benghazi controversies. This week he became chairman of a new Benghazi select committee, making him de facto leader of the GOP’s strategy to whip those issues into an apocalyptic constitutional narrative.
Experts say that Gowdy, a savvy lawyer, has plenty of legal maneuvers to exploit. No one expects him and his GOP colleagues to be done with their work before the midterms -- or even, necessarily before, 2016.
Also this week, the House voted to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt over her refusal to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Gowdy sits on that committee, too.
The next step is for the House to refer the matter to the U.S. attorney in Washington, Ronald Machen Jr., who must in turn decide whether to bring the matter to a grand jury to seek an indictment. In recent decades the U.S. attorney has been thought to have some leeway in whether to seek an indictment following a congressional contempt holding. But experts expect Machen, a shrewd player, not to attempt to short-circuit the process.
“I think he takes it to the grand jury,” said Stan Brand, a leading attorney practicing at the nexus of congressional investigations and criminal law.
If the grand jury indicts (as would be likely), Lerner would then go to trial on a federal misdemeanor charge of failing to answer the House subpoena when she refused to testify. The issue would be whether she had waived her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when she made opening statements at a House Oversight Committee hearing. Gowdy said that she had.
“That will be up to the federal judge to decide, if Machen does what I think he will,” Brand said.
Throughout that legal process, expect Gowdy and Company to publicly rehash the underlying issue in the matter: the extent to which the IRS did or did not disproportionately investigate the tax-exempt status of tea party groups.
But Gowdy’s main focus going forward will be Benghazi. He will likely issue subpoena after subpoena. Former White House aides will claim executive privilege and refuse to testify about events while they were working for Obama. Gowdy will attempt to test the limits of that argument.
Expect him to try to call a long list of witnesses, from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to current Secretary of State John Kerry, to White House national security adviser Susan Rice, to White House speechwriter and Benghazi talking-points coach Ben Rhodes.
Is any of this going to matter in November?
The so-so economy and weak job growth remain far and away the top issues of concern to American voters. Other polls show that Republicans and independents are already well versed on Benghazi in particular. More partisan polls show the same for the IRS issue.
But the Gowdy Show isn’t only or even so much about polls and the fine points of field strategy.
This is an emotional, even psychological strategy. South Carolina is the political ground zero of a certain way of thinking, and the concentric rings reach out to virtually the entire Republican Party today and the allied media that support it.
And there are just enough loose threads in both issues for a tenacious prosecutor like Gowdy to grab hold of. Who told White House officials that the Benghazi attack was the spontaneous result of anger about a YouTube video? Was Lerner in league with anyone elsewhere in the IRS?
It all makes sense if you know where Trey Gowdy is coming from.