The most important thing to keep in mind when you make a secret recording of a politician and then ostentatiously leak it to the media is that the material it contains should be, you know, secret. That and really embarrassing.
I realize that as I write this some enterprising youngster at The Daily Wire is probably in the middle of catching Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) admitting that he prefers Dawn to Palmolive, but no matter how many 67-year-old Tea Party grandmas share it on Facebook, it's not a scoop. Ideally the elected official in question should be unburdening himself of his long-suspected contempt for roughly half of the American people or at least using foul language. If he is just saying the kinds of things he would say on CNN, it's not important.
This is the fundamental problem with the audio of Rep. Devin Nunes, the California Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, aired Wednesday night by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. "If Sessions won't unrecuse and Mueller won't clear the president, we're the only ones," Nunes is reported to have said at a private fundraiser for his colleague Cathy McMorris Rodgers. "Which is really the danger. … I mean we have to keep all these seats. We have to keep the majority. If we do not keep the majority, all of this goes away."
So a Republican in the House wants his party to win the midterm elections? Fancy that. Also, good luck. Despite Democrats' embarrassing 1-9 track record so far in Trump-era special elections, there are good reasons to believe the party has a good chance at retaking the lower chamber in November, even if they lose ground in the Senate. So many Republicans are resigned to this conclusion that they are retiring en masse.
The supposedly more "scandalous" part of the recording is the revelation that Nunes is also hoping to end Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation of President Trump's 2016 campaign by any means necessary. He doesn't care whether this means Attorney General Jeff Sessions reneges on his promise not to get involved or whether Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein has to be impeached on some absurd pretext or whether Mueller himself decides not to bring any charges against the president, even the probable bloodless ones involving the obstruction of an investigation into supposed collusion. Is any of this a surprise? Nunes' intentions have been out in the open for a long time. He even went so far earlier this year as to charge his staff with inventing a conspiracy theory about the FBI sabotaging the election to rival even the most lurid speculations of the paid-up Muellerites. It hasn't worked so far, but partisanship is a series of spasmodic muscular contractions, not a precise workout routine.
I wish I could get really worked up about Nunes and his nefarious plans to quash Mueller. He is a walking advertisement for everything normal people hate about the GOP, a posturing ninny who proudly insists that he was an "entrepreneur" at the age of 14, when most of us were no doubt still expecting a handout from Big Government, i.e., Mom. He is a liar and a shill.
But come on. It has been a long time since it was possible to have disinterested feelings about the special counsel investigation. If anyone were really horrified by the idea of foreign influence on our elections we would have taken meaningful steps to prevent it long ago. It certainly has nothing to do with Russia, which most Democrats didn't care about in 2012 or even in 2015. The Trump administration is quietly pursuing the most hawkish Russia policy since the Cold War without attracting much notice from Democrats in Congress or from liberal commentators. If bombing Bashar al Assad, agitating for more NATO spending, beefing up American troop presence in Eastern Europe, arming Ukraine, and, only a few days ago, passing anti-Russia sanctions that the Kremlin describes as "draconian," "far-fetched," and "absolutely illegal" is the work of a KGB agent, Trump really is playing 40-dimensional chess.
This is not what's happening, of course. Trump is more of a checkers man, flinging pieces across the board at random and shouting "King me" every five seconds whether his last move was legal or not.
The Trump-Mueller-Nunes-Peter Strzok dialectic has nothing to do with the Kremlin or ethics in federal law enforcement or the supposedly sacrosanct billionaire auctions that our federal elections have become: It's about us-versus-them, about rhetoric and partisanship and, on the part of observers in the media and among the public, class signaling.
What the American people need are not more secret recordings of non-secrets but better descriptive accounts of how their government works. The old high-school civics clichés about the three branches of government, divided power, checks and balances, and so on are childish. So too is the "I'm Just a Bill" fantasy of ordinary public-spirited citizens seeking legislative solutions to the vexing problems of the day by contacting their duly elected representatives. Politics is simply the pursuit and exercise of power. In our system officials, elected and otherwise, seize upon the procedural mechanisms at their disposal or invent new ones in the hope of pressing some fresh advantage upon their opponents. Norms — legal, fiscal, rhetorical — exist for the purpose of being violated by one side and fussed over by the other one. This is as true of the presidency and the attendant agencies of the federal government as it is of Congress and the Supreme Court. The contest between the two loose factions sometimes designated "R" and "D" is at once chiliastic and nihilistic, an all-consuming opposition of two groups that represent no principles save the brute fact of their own polarity.
It is probably the case that without hyper-partisanship our system would collapse. It is its operating, if not its organizing, principle. At any rate it's not going away any time soon.
In the meantime, looking past the epiphenomena to the boring truths they conceal can be refreshing once in a while.