IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

When politicians ponder 'optics' and 'atmosphere'

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas)
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas)Associated Press

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) appeared yesterday on "Face the Nation" and seemed wholly unconcerned about the scope of the NSA surveillance programs. Indeed, like many of his congressional colleagues, McCaul expressed far more concern with prosecuting Edward Snowden for leaking the information than scaling back intelligence-gathering operations.

But notice how the Republican Texan chose to use the story to criticize President Obama anyway.

"The optics are terrible in this case when you consider the recent scandals," said McCaul on CBS's "Face the Nation."

Ah, yes, the "optics." McCaul has no problem with the NSA's expansive surveillance programs, and has no intention of criticizing the efforts or voting for new restrictions, but he nevertheless sees a political problem for the White House -- because of the "optics."

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said something similar last week on "Meet the Press":

"You know, when you look at the IRS and you look at the Benghazi issue and you look at the AP issue, I think the trouble here isn't even the individual specific scandals, it's this broader notion that there's a pattern of this activity."

See what he did there? The "individual specific scandals," according to the House Intelligence Committee Chairman, don't really matter. Indeed, they can't really matter since the so-called "scandals" are either unrelated to the White House, deal with actions that are probably legal, or both.

So it becomes necessary to shift attention to "broader notions" and "optics," since factual details are politically unsatisfying. It turns politicians into pundits, reflecting less on policy and more on perceptions.

Greg Sargent had a sharp take on this last week after hearing Rogers' comments.

Those who remember the 1990s well ... will recall that this is a time tested tactic. The goal is to create an overarching atmosphere of scandal, because this intensifies pressure on news orgs and reporters to hype individual revelations within that framework with little regard to the actual importance or significance of each new piece of information.

It's worth emphasizing that all of this predates the NSA revelations. But it nevertheless provides a context to McCaul's quote: "The optics are terrible in this case when you consider the recent scandals."

Or to put another way, "We couldn't get any of the scandals to stick, but we created an environment with some vague notion of the White House in crisis, despite the absence of wrongdoing. We can therefore opportunistically complain about NSA activities, even if we endorse them and want them to continue."

When politicians talk about "optics," instead of specifics, red flags should immediately go up.