Hear me now and believe me later: If Republicans win and maintain control of the House of Representatives, they are going to impeach President Obama. They won’t do it right away. And they won’t succeed in removing Obama. (You need 67 Senate votes.) But if Obama wins a second term, the House will vote to impeach him before he leaves office.
Wait, you say. What will they impeach him over? You can always find something. Mini-scandals break out regularly in Washington. Last spring, the political press erupted in a frenzy over the news that the White House had floated a potential job to prospective Senate candidate Joe Sestak. On a scale of one to 100, with one representing presidential jaywalking and 100 representing Watergate, the Sestak job offer probably rated about a 1.5. Yet it was enough that GOP Representative Darrell Issa called the incident an impeachable offense.
It is safe to say that Issa’s threshold of what constitutes an impeachable offense is not terribly high. As it happens, should Republicans win control of the House, Issa would bring his hair-trigger finger to the chairmanship of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The Sestak pseudo-scandal disappeared because there was no process to drive the story forward. Had Issa been running the Oversight Committee, it would have been the subject of hearings and subpoenas.
And it is not as if Issa’s interest in the Sestak case springs from some idiosyncratic obsession with the generally common practice of using executive-branch jobs to lure candidates out of the Senate. His taste in Obama-related scandal is catholic. In addition to the Sestak allegations, Issa has called for the investigation or disclosure of matters weighty and not-so-weighty, including the so-called Climategate e-mail controversy, congressional recipients of friendly loans from Countrywide, the methodology behind the government’s statistics on jobs “created or saved,” the Treasury’s prior knowledge of the AIG bonuses, the leaking of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s fraud suit against Goldman Sachs, the District of Columbia school vouchers program, all taxpayer-funded White House trips on behalf of Democratic candidates, the administration’s response to the BP oil spill and its drilling moratorium, National Labor Relations Board nominee Craig Becker’s possible conflict of interest, the “executive branch’s approach to food safety,” potential collusion between General Motors and the Treasury, and the firing of the inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service, plus many, many others.
This merely covers Obama’s first 20 months in office. No doubt more outrages would command Issa’s attention. Just as a rigorous IRS audit of a taxpayer is bound to turn up something, an investigation by the likes of Issa will eventually produce a scandal. Once you have grasped hold of the investigative machinery, the process drives itself. “We would never go looking for a scandal—they come to us,” Issa explained to National Review. “Typically, it is not the crime but the cover-up. The scandal comes when administration officials try to circumvent, not report, or distort what is happening.”
Obviously, Issa cannot impeach the president by himself. That would take a vote by the House of Representatives. But once a major figure like Issa puts impeachment on the table, it is impossible to imagine the rest of the party failing to go along. A December poll found that 35 percent of Republicans already favor impeaching Obama, with just 48 percent opposed and the balance undecided. That is a large base of support to impeach Obama for literally anything at all.
Once Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, and the like collectively decide that this or that incident represents an intolerable abuse of power by the Obama administration, the conservative base will go from supporting impeachment to demanding it. At that point, the acquiescence of the House GOP would become inevitable. Since Obama took office, whatever willingness the party establishment had to resist the impulses of its base has been submerged beneath a wave of right-wing primary challenges.
The Republicans wouldn’t dare repeat the mistake they made by impeaching Clinton, you say? You’re not thinking like a Republican. In the conservative mind, the impeachment crusade was not a political miscalculation but a misty, watercolored memory. A 2006 National Review retrospective of impeachment leader Henry Hyde captures the right’s view:
His only regret involves tactics. ... “I should have demanded that Monica Lewinsky and Clinton testify.” Although Hyde did not achieve his main objective, it would be wrong to view the entire project as a failure.
In this interpretation, the process sufficiently tarnished Clinton so that his vice president was unable to run on the administration’s accomplishments and was easily tarred as a liar during the crucial stretch in October 2000 when the media pounced upon Gore’s veracity. “There are 13 people who are responsible for where we are now,” a Bush adviser told The Weekly Standard shortly before the 2000 election. “They are the House impeachment managers.”
The Clinton impeachment does not offer a useful guide to the Obama presidency if you think of it solely as a punishment for Clinton’s crime. But it’s more accurate to think about the Clinton impeachment as political warfare by other means against a president conservatives deemed illegitimate.
David Bossie, a conservative activist who worked for then-House Oversight Chairman Dan Burton, recently told The Daily Beast that he had been convinced Clinton was a left-wing sleeper agent, but now realizes he was wrong. “If you look back now with the benefit of hindsight, oh how I wish he was president today compared to this guy in there now,” observes Bossie. “That guy in there now is truly a radical.”
This is the conservative view of Obama—a left-wing radical who seized power via an economic crisis, smuggled radical views into the White House, and used unfair tactics to force an unpopular transformative left-wing agenda upon a conservative country.
The history of modern Washington is a history of the social norms that once restrained political parties from no-holds-barred warfare falling by the wayside, one by one. Why would Republicans impeach Obama? The better question is, why wouldn’t they?
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor for The New Republic. This piece ran in the October 28, 2010 issue, of the magazine.