WASHINGTON — Rep. Trey Gowdy, the tea party Republican tapped to lead the new committee investigating the 2012 Benghazi attacks, made a telling slip Wednesday morning in describing his mission.
Asked by MSNBC's Joe Scarborough about the possibility that his panel's work would continue into the 2016 election campaign, Gowdy replied that "if an administration is slow-walking document production, I can't end a trial simply because the defense won't cooperate."
A trial? And the Obama administration is the defense? So much for that "serious investigation" House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) promised; his new chairman intends to play prosecutor, proving the administration's guilt to the jury — in this case, the public.
As a legal matter, Gowdy, a volcanic former prosecutor, is on shaky ground declaring his committee a court and his investigation a trial. But his honesty is refreshing, and it confirms what seemed implicit in Boehner's selection of the second-term South Carolinian to head the panel over more experienced and less combative colleagues.
In a broader sense, Gowdy's rapid ascent in the party fits closely with what House Republicans are doing in this midterm election year: abandoning any pretense of legislating in favor of unremitting hostilities with the White House.
Gowdy, who deploys courtroom theatrics on the House floor and in committee hearings, often wears his gray hair long and slicked back and has gained attention for wild-eyed, high-volume bursts of pious indignation. The rise of another Southern white male to the top of the GOP probably won't improve its demographic difficulties, but Gowdy's climb is a key example of how the Republican Party has blunted the tea party threat in large part by co-opting the movement.
On Wednesday, Republicans were celebrating victories Tuesday night by establishment candidates in primaries in North Carolina and elsewhere; Boehner resoundingly defeated a primary challenge on a night that was kind to incumbents. But much of this recovery of the Republican establishment comes from establishment figures talking and acting like right-wing insurgents — particularly in their zeal to expose wrongdoing in the Obama administration.
GOP leaders are apparently aware that their Gowdy new look could be problematic. Republican House leaders emerging from a closed-door caucus meeting declared to the TV cameras that they were all about creating jobs, omitting from their opening statements any mention of their investigatory obsession.
"I hosted my fifth-annual jobs fair," began Rep. Lynn Jenkins of Kansas.
"Today I wanted to talk more about jobs," announced Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state.
Boehner asserted that there are "nearly 40 pro-growth jobs bills" in the Senate passed by the House, while Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said the House will "take up a big jobs bill," extending the research-and-development tax credit.
But their actions on the House floor told quite a different story. On Wednesday afternoon, House Republicans took up legislation holding former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress (Gowdy's objection to Lerner refusing to testify in committee had set this in motion), and a second bill calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special counsel to look into the IRS.
Those 40 jobs bills Boehner was talking about are a bunch of tax breaks and deregulation measures ("Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act") that can only be called "jobs" bills under the most elastic definition. And the R&D legislation, which violates Republicans' budget, is necessary only because GOP leaders have rejected taking action this year on an overhaul of the tax code.
Reporters didn't take the jobs bait; most questions were about the scandal agenda, including the Gowdy committee.
"This is all about getting to the truth," Boehner asserted. "It's not going to be a circus. This is a serious investigation."
To demonstrate the seriousness, the National Republican Congressional Committee, under the control of House Republican leaders, started a fundraising campaign Wednesday urging donors to become "Benghazi watchdogs" along with "Chief Benghazi Watchdog Congressman Trey Gowdy."
"House Republicans will make sure that no one will get away from Gowdy and the Select Committee," it said, adding, "Help fight liberals by donating today."
Gowdy disagreed with that approach in his MSNBC interview, saying, "I have never sought to raise a single penny on the backs of four murdered Americans."
It emerged later in the day that Gowdy had, in fact, spoken about Benghazi at a fundraiser. But perhaps he should be forgiven this memory lapse. As chief prosecutor in the show trial of the president, he has a lot on his mind.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.