When you hear Rep. Darrell Issa, one of the president's harshest Republican critics in the House, demanding to know whether the president is safe, it's tempting to believe that, at least for a moment, partisan politics has been put to one side in what should be a united and nonpolitical commitment to the safety of our president and his family.
Tempting -- but like so much in Washington, there seems to be no escaping the politics.
Democrats are worrying out loud -- which is to say on television and in print -- that the Republicans will (and are) using the security lapses as one more opportunity to paint the Obama administration as incompetent. The press has spent almost as much time, or more, on the politics, as it has been trying to figure out what the real problems are. A "two-fer" -- that's what one Democrat called it in the New York Times, describing the politics and meaning that Republicans get to sound off on security (a serious and important topic) and make the Obama administration the target of their attacks, even if it was the president and his family who were potentially at risk.
Yes, it's true the president appointed the head of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson, three years ago. But he hardly instructed her to cut corners on his safety or that of his wife and children. And yet there was the president's press secretary (the day before Pierson resigned) seeking to deflect aggressive questioning about who knew what and when -- as if the president were trying to understate or dismiss or downplay an issue where he, quite literally, is the one with the most to lose.
Pierson had to go because, as the Greeks say, the fish rots from the head, and when you're the head of an agency that has been publicly humiliated, you go. That doesn't mean the security breaches were the product of anything she did, let alone the fault of the president or his party. Presidents are loath to criticize the Secret Service for many reasons, including that these are the men and women who risk their lives to protect the president and his family and are with them 24/7.
The president's security is an American issue, not a Democratic or Republican one. So is the arrival of Ebola, not only in the form of one case in America, but also in the outbreaks in cities across Africa with no capacity to handle it. So is the spread of Islamic extremism, and campus sexual assault and virtually every other issue that anyone -- and I mean anyone who isn't playing politics inside the Beltway -- worries about.
Try this test. Pick up your local paper and tell me: How many of the issues that people in your community are concerned about are "partisan" issues? We might have different approaches, but outside of Washington, they rarely bear a party label. What to do, we ask each other, and shake our heads. Oh, my goodness, we say, when we hear that the president's house -- or our next-door neighbor's -- was broken into.
Of course, this is an election season, and a host of close races might end up deciding who controls the Senate, which might end up determining who serves as attorney general and who is appointed to other key positions. Elections matter. There are differences between the candidates. But what the security breach -- like the awful beheadings, like the spread of Ebola -- should remind us is most of the problems that rightly concern and even terrify us are not caused by partisan politics and will not be solved by partisan politics.
Susan Estrich is a columnist,
commentator and law and political science professor at USC.