James Comey, President Barack Obama's nominee to be director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, cruised through his Senate confirmation hearing yesterday. It was no surprise: Comey, a deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, is deeply experienced and widely respected. But the most salient portion of Comey's record is not his admirable defense of the Constitution in a Washington hospital room in 2004.
It's that he's a Republican.
Sure, Obama has appointed Republicans before. He just added one -- Chuck Hagel -- to run the Department of Defense. But Hagel, a former Republican Senator from Nebraska, was unloved by his caucus mates, partly for having fussed too much over the Bush administration's management of the Iraq war.
Comey is different not only because he was a good Republican soldier -- with donations to the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney to boot -- but also because Obama nominated him to be the nation's chief crime-buster in the midst of an all-out Republican campaign to brand Obama as a criminal.
From the start of his reign, Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has been gunning for Obama. Issa spends his committee's resources advancing scandals such as "Fast and Furious" and the IRS targeting of political groups seeking tax-exempt status. After calling Obama "one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times," Issa clarified the statement, saying that Obama's was merely "one of the most corrupt administrations."
House Speaker John Boehner, who gave Issa the chairman's gavel, responded to the IRS inspector general's report by demanding, "Who's going to jail?" Having established the predicate that a crime was committed, Boehner subsequently avowed that it was "inconceivable" that Obama didn't know about it.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell picks up the investigative lead from there. In a political ad this spring, McConnell used the IRS scandal to tie Obama directly to the King of Cover-Up, Richard Nixon. And we all know how that presidency turned out. Then, in a speech last month at the American Enterprise Institute, McConnell accused Obama of creating a "culture of intimidation" aiming to "stifle speech" among his critics. Pretty Nixonian.
Or pretty cynical -- as the Comey nomination confirms. The FBI is arguably the sole law enforcement agency with the power to bring down a president. That's why Nixon never would have nominated a member of the opposition party to lead it. But Obama did. Obama no doubt holds Comey in high regard and believes he'll be a good FBI director. But Obama had to be mindful that the nomination sends other, more complicated messages.
On one hand, Obama was kissing off congressional Republicans and telling the world he has nothing to fear from them. On another, more promising note, he was saying that bipartisanship is still important and, even in Washington circa 2013, with the likes of Issa in full yowl, it's not quite dead. In effect, it's a declaration that although the Republican Party is in alarmingly bad shape, Republicans are still worth engaging in the mission of government and still have something constructive to offer.
In effect, the Comey nomination is at once an insult hurled at Republican leaders and a magnanimous gesture of reconciliation. I wonder which part will be reciprocated.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)