Thursday was another busy day in the limelight for Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador.
After the 1st Congressional District Republican called on Attorney General Eric Holder to resign, the Los Angeles Times and the D.C. bureau of the Associated Press picked up on the angle for their stories on the Operation Fast and Furious fallout. Fox News also came calling for Labrador.
Not bad for a freshman lawmaker from Idaho? No. Pretty remarkable for a freshman lawmaker from Idaho.
And it shows that Labrador has the keenest political instinct of any elected official in Idaho. I’m not calling Labrador a natural. But he’s close.
For Labrador, representing a conservative 1st District, Fast and Furious is a batting-practice fastball. The gun-trafficking program, designed to infiltrate Mexican drug cartels, has become a crisis for the White House. Federal agents have lost track of some 1,400 weapons used in the program, according to a Hearst Newspapers report. Two of the weapons were found in December 2010, at a murder scene where a U.S border control agent was found dead.
Labrador isn’t the only Republican to question what Holder knew about the program, and when. But Labrador made news when he suggested Holder was “either lying or grossly incompetent,” and demanded his ouster.
The move may have little impact; on Thursday, President Obama stood by his man. But it once again positioned Labrador as a voice of the House GOP freshman class — a role he played during the summer’s debt-ceiling crisis, as a repeat guest on the Sunday morning network news shows.
Labrador has the knack for making news, no small gift in his chosen profession. And I gave short shrift to Labrador’s savvy during his improbable run to Congress in 2010.
During that election, the conventional wisdom held that Labrador was in the right place at the right time. There’s a lot of truth to this storyline. The underfunded Labrador benefitted when Vaughn Ward, the darling of the GOP establishment, ran an amateur-hour primary, and cashed in again when Democratic incumbent Walt Minnick doubled down on shrill negative campaign ads. It was easy — too easy — to write off Labrador as a fluke.
No. Labrador knows how to make the most of his political opportunities, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. With House Republicans in ascendance, Labrador is leveraging his moment.
Here again, Labrador is in the right place at the right time, unlike his immediate (and one-term) predecessors. Rep. Bill Sali was doomed to be a backbencher in a Democratic House, as a battered Bush presidency ran out the clock. Minnick was in the majority, but consistently tried to distance himself from Obama and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But here’s the thing. Sali was given to flakiness and abrasiveness. Minnick often was awkward as he tried to reconcile his centrist politics against his party’s tide. Unlike Sali, Labrador picks his battles wisely. Unlike Minnick, Labrador seems completely at ease. He believes in his positions, he enjoys the give-and-take with the media, and it shows.
Labrador may not be the most powerful member of the Idaho delegation. That honor may still go to 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson, a longtime ally of House Speaker John Boehner and a Appropriations Committee member to boot. But Labrador may be the best politician in the bunch.