When the histories of this administration are written, I hope fervently that last Friday, May 10, does not figure prominently in them. But I fear that it might: the double-barrel revelations that the White House hasn’t quite been telling the whole story on Benghazi and that some mid-level IRS people targeted some Tea Party groups for scrutiny are guaranteed to ramp up the crazy. But to what extent? I fear it could be considerable, and the people in the White House damn well better fear the same, or we’re going to be contemplating an extremely ugly situation come 2015, especially if the Republicans have held the House and captured the Senate in the by-elections.
Let me clarify a point that’s been going around. On MSNBC Friday, I broached the I-word. You know the one. Three syllables. Links Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton. I said something like: I have little doubt the Republicans would try to pursue it—something I’ve written dozens of times without readers really batting an eye. But I guess saying it on TV, and on a fateful day, is different. I was on the business end of a small number of angry tweets from liberal readers, and I see that the UK Daily Mail trotted out my statement in a way that made it sound as if I thought it was legitimate.
I didn’t get to finish my thought on television for one reason or another, but here on my home field, as it were, permit me to finish it: I think the notion of impeachment is industrial-strength insane. There is utterly no proof that the President Obama even knew anything directly about the shifting Benghazi responses, let alone did something about them (yes, folks; under the Constitution, the President must do something). And as for the Internal Revenue Service story, from what we now know, those transgressions were committed by IRS staffers in Cincinnati who have never been closer to Obama than their television sets. I always held a squishy spot in my breast for the Daily Mail because of the “Paperback Writer” mention, but as of this weekend they can go stick it up their punter, or whatever it is they say. Impeachment is crazy, the Daily Mail is crazy, and the idea that Obama has any direct culpability in either of these matters is, given what we know today, utter madness. Okay?
But this is my point: utter madness is what today’s Republicans do. You can present to me every logical argument you desire. Benghazi at the end of the day was a terrible tragedy in which mistakes, bad mistakes, were certainly made, and in which confusion and the CYA reflex led to some bad information going out to the public initially, but none of this remotely rises to the level of high crime. The IRS cock-up was just that, a mistake by a regional office. I get all this, and I agree with you.
But what we think doesn’t matter. I can assure you that already in the Pavlovian swamps of the nutso right, the glands are swelling. Theirs is a different planet from the one you and I inhabit. Most Republican members of the House live in districts where it is a given (among the white constituents, anyway) that Obama is a socialist; that’s he bent on bringing the United States of America down, or at least that he definitely doesn’t love the country and the Constitution (nudge nudge) the way they do; that he’s not a legitimate occupant of the Oval Office to start with. At the time he was sworn in to his second term, 64 percent of Republicans agreed that Obama was “hiding important information” about his background. Half thought in December 2012 that he stole the election.
At this point some of you may be protesting: but at least Clinton did commit a crime, however lame a crime it was. Obama has done no such thing. Again, in reality-land, no, he hasn’t. In their land, however, he has committed a string of them; he just hasn’t been caught yet. And that’s what Darrell Issa and his committee are there to unearth. Besides, he need commit no conventional crime. A high crime or misdemeanor is whatever the House majority decides it is. Remember, in January 1998, impeachment talk started before Clinton had perjured himself.
There is no end to it. And there is no end to Republican figures—and to a distressing extent, the mainstream media—feeding the crazy. When Lindsey Graham calls Benghazi “Obama’s Watergate,” he knows exactly what he’s saying, and so do Republicans in South Carolina, and across the country. And observe over the next few days—it’s already happening—how quickly journalistic shorthand, certainly in the right-wing media, converts the Cincinnati IRS office into “Obama’s IRS,” as if he were sitting around like Nixon personally targeting these groups. You and I know that’s absurd. But on the right, it’s a given that he was doing exactly that.
Okay, but surely, you say, if facts don’t matter, then public opinion does? Think again, my friend. In 1998, support for impeachment of Bill Clinton was rarely above 30 percent. Here’s a little sampling of surveys from August and September of that year, during the heat of battle—the release of Clinton’s grand-jury testimony and of the Starr Report. Levels of support for impeachment were 26 percent, 25, 18, 27, 17, and so on. There was one poll where it hit 40 percent, but most were far lower. And remember, in political terms, 40 is the butt end of a massive landslide. The public hated the idea.
Did that stop anyone? No. And it won’t stop them now. They do their base’s bidding, not America’s. How many times do you need to see them do this before you accept that it is the reality? And now there’s an added element. They want to gin up turnout among their base for next year’s elections. And if they gin it up enough, and the Democratic base stays home, they could end up holding the House and taking the Senate. And if they have both houses, meaning that the vote in the House would not be certain to hit a Senate dead-end, well, look out.
I hope the White House knows this. I hope they understand, I hope the President himself understands, that the fever has not broken and will not break. It might crescendo right up to his very last day in office. And yes, a lot of this Benghazi stuff is about Hillary Clinton. But not all of it. And the IRS thing, which Drudge led with for two days in a row and may yet be bigger than Benghazi, isn’t about her at all. If my worst fears are never realized—well, good, obviously. But it will only be because they couldn’t identify even a flimsy pretext on which to proceed. Never put the most extreme behavior past them. It is who they are, and it is what they do.