Those who bemoan the state of political discourse certainly had more to cringe at this week with the rhetorical crossfire between the past and present directors of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

But things turned a little wonky — if not absurd — when they began firing religious and classical references in each other's direction.

Acting CFPB Director Mick Mulvaney denigrated his predecessor, Richard Cordray, as an overly activist regulator in a memo to the bureau's staff that was leaked to ProPublica, an investigative journalism outlet, and was widely reported. Cordray, the bureau's former director who is now running for Ohio governor, took to Twitter to criticize Mulvaney, referring to his successor's work at the agency as "squatter leadership" and stating that "the fish rots from the head down."

CFPB Director Richard Cordray
"More retreat yesterday from current squatter leadership at CFPB, this time closing an investigation into the predatory practices of a payday installment lender that had given money to the alleged acting director’s campaign," Cordray tweeted. Bloomberg News

However, the combatants set themselves apart from the run-of-the-mill Beltway bashing of late when they went positively bookish.

Mulvaney's memo quoted from the play "A Man for All Seasons," a fictional account of the life of Sir Thomas More, in making a point about the risks of overzealous government.

"This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast — Man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil the benefit of the law, for my own safety sake."

In tweets Wednesday and Thursday, Cordray offered his own direct quote from More and said he had "dug into Marcus Aurelius' Meditations during the tribulations at the CFPB last year."

Mulvaney's reference to More called attention to excessive regulation that he accused Cordray of, while Cordray implied laws are necessary because the men who serve political office do not live up to expectations.

It's to be expected that Cordray would be unhappy with Mulvaney's efforts to stall or roll back the CFPB's regulations and enforcement actions. Still, it is highly unusual for a former regulator to attack his successor on social media even in today's bare-knuckles political climate.

Cordray pilloried Mulvaney Wednesday after the installment lender World Acceptance Corp. announced that the CFPB had dropped a nearly four-year probe into the Greenville, S.C., company's lending activities.

Mulvaney received $4,500 in campaign contributions from the company's political action committee when a South Carolina congressman. The CFPB said the bureau's staff had dropped the investigation and emphatically denied that Mulvaney was involved.

An hour later, Cordray defended his own actions at the CFPB.

Mulvaney said in the memo, which drew strong reactions, that the bureau will not engage in "regulation by enforcement," a term coined by the industry during Cordray's tenure to describe enforcement actions identifying unfair, deceptive or abusive acts or practices. Cordray responded:

Cordray also tweeted Wednesday about his hand-picked successor Leandra English's lawsuit to unseat Mulvaney. English, the CFPB's deputy director, was granted an expedited appeal Tuesday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to have the lawsuit heard by a three-judge panel.

The case arose when Cordray abruptly resigned over Thanksgiving weekend and appointed English as acting director, claiming the Dodd-Frank Act allowed him to name an interim head in his absence. Trump named Mulvaney to the job on the same day, claiming he had broad authority to do so under the 1998 Federal Vacancies Reform Act.

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