Is it reasonable to surmise that a move to impeach Barack Obama is a realistic possibility?
It isn’t that no one has talked about impeaching Obama before, because they have. But for the last five years, impeachment has been the purview of the nuttier corners of the right — the conspiracist web sites, the chain emails, the ranting radio hosts. For much of that time, the complaints weren’t so much about specific alleged misdeeds as Obama’s fundamental illegitimacy. Impeach him because he isn’t American. Impeach him because ACORN and the New Black Panthers stole the election for him. Impeach him because while other presidents hired people known as “White House staff,” when this president does it they’re “czars” wielding unconstitutional powers. They could certainly give you a list of particulars if you asked, but what it came down to was that Barack Obama was, well, Barack Obama.
But now we have the Benghazi select committee, and a select committee is what you form when there may be crimes and misdemeanors to uncover. It has no other business to distract it, and it will be led by Trey Gowdy, a former prosecutor who excels at channeling conservatives’ outrage.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that Boehner or the party establishment he represents want impeachment, not by any means. They realize what a political disaster it was when they did it in 1998, and they understand that the effects would likely be similar if it happened again. But there are multiple Republican members of Congress who have at least toyed with the idea, and the committee’s hearings could build pressure in the Republican base for it.
How would that play out? The select committee hearings will provide an institutional pathway and the requisite media attention necessary to air all sorts of dramatic allegations against the administration (supported by evidence or not). They’ll get non-stop coverage on Fox News, where some personalities are already calling for impeachment. Conservative radio hosts will talk of little else for months. Spurred on by their media, base Republicans will begin pressuring their representatives, in phone calls and emails and town meetings and wherever those members of Congress go. And remember that your average Republican member comes from a safe Republican district, where the only political threat is from the right. While it may be too late for the 2014 election, potential primary candidates for 2016 will start popping up, saying, “Congressman X didn’t have the guts to impeach Barack Obama, and he won’t have the guts to go after Hillary Clinton. Elect me, and I will.”
All that would make many in the House conclude that coming out in favor of impeachment is the safest political play to make. And isn’t in the logical extension of everything they’ve been saying for the last five years about this socialist anti-American liberty-destroying president?
In all seriousness, an impeachment drive would be, in many ways, another iteration of the central conflict of this period of our political history, the one between a Tea Party pushing the GOP to ever more radical tactics and a party establishment warning of political catastrophe if they go too far. The GOP establishment didn’t want to shut down the government or cause a debt ceiling crisis, but they got pushed into them and didn’t get out until the political costs became undeniable. They’ll warn that impeachment would be a terrible mistake, and they might persuade their brethren to hold back. But it won’t be easy.
The biggest problem the pro-impeachment forces would face is that the Benghazi committee is unlikely to produce any particular action by Obama that they could point to and say, this is the crime for which he must be impeached. The real threat is that it may well produce something that’s good enough for them, even if the rest of the country is unconvinced. After all, even before anyone heard the name Monica Lewinsky, Republicans in the House were preparing to impeach Bill Clinton. All they needed was the controversy that took it from a fringe idea to a mainstream Republican idea, and then the momentum made it unstoppable.