Podesta's 'Cult' Comment Sows Discord With Congress

New White House counselor ruffles feathers with an earlier comment comparing conservatives to cultists.

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The modest budget deal that cleared Congress Wednesday seems to be a step toward comity and compromise in Washington. That's largely because it was approved with no government shutdown and a minimum of partisan dramatics. But the era of relatively good feelings probably won't last. As pollsters and consultants of both parties told me, the differences between Democrats who control the Senate and Republicans who control the House are too wide to be bridged on major issues any time soon.

The more telling episode focused on an inflammatory remark by incoming White House counselor John Podesta about how members of the House GOP resemble a deadly cult, which provoked an angry Republican response. What got Podesta in hot water was a comment to Politico prior to his joining the administration. He said Obama and his advisers need to use the president's unilateral powers to implement his initiatives because House Republicans have blocked so much of Obama's agenda.

Podesta added: "They need to focus on executive action given that they are facing a second term against a cult worthy of Jonestown in charge of one of the houses of Congress." He was presumably talking about tea party activists and other ultra-conservatives who play a strong role in House deliberations.

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When Republicans cried foul earlier this week, Podesta issued a mea culpa of sorts, "In an old interview," he said on Twitter, "my snark got in front of my judgment. I apologize to Speaker [John] Boehner, whom I have always respected." Of course this missed the point, since Podesta didn't apologize to the tea party and its allies, who were his real targets.

Center for American Progress' President and CEO John Podesta gestures during a "Pro-Growth Strategy" forum on Aug. 4, 2010, in Washington.
Incoming White House counselor John Podesta, shown here in 2010, recently made an inflammatory remark about how members of the House GOP resemble a deadly cult, which provoked an angry Republican response.

When he was White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, Podesta got the deserved reputation as a tough infighter. In recent years, as leader of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, Podesta has generally taken a left-of-center view on major issues.

Democratic strategists say Obama brought Podesta into the White House inner circle to install a hard-edged, experienced partisan on his team as he prepares for tough fights with the Republicans in 2014 and maneuvers to have the Democrats take back the House majority in the November midterm elections.

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Brendan Buck, Boehner's spokesman, expressed outrage. He said prior to Podesta's apology, "For those who've forgotten, a Democratic member of Congress [Rep. Leo Ryan, D-Calif.,] was murdered in Jonestown and a current one, Rep. Jackie Speier [D-Calif., then a congressional aide], was shot five times during the same incident. If this is the attitude of the new White House, it's hard to see how the president gets anything done again."

Jonestown, in Guyana, is also infamous because of a mass suicide in 1978 when more than 900 followers of zealot Jim Jones died.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., chairman of the Republican Study Committee, urged Obama to fire Podesta. "Its disgraceful and telling that President Obama's new counselor is not only comparing the Republican party to a cult that murdered those who disagreed with them," Scalise said, "but is also using that comparison as an argument in support of shredding the Constitution and governing like a third-world dictator."

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and on Facebook and Twitter.