Is a drive to impeach Obama on its way?

| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

If you're looking for some beach reading this summer, you might pick up a copy of this soon-to-be-released book: “Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama's Impeachment,” by National Review writer Andrew McCarthy. It's hitting bookstores just as Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, has appointed a select committee to investigate Benghazi and will no doubt be required reading on Capitol Hill and at the Fox News studios.

But is it reasonable to surmise that a move to impeach President Obama is a realistic possibility? It isn't that no one has talked about impeaching Obama before, because they have. But for the past five years, impeachment has been the purview of the nuttier corners of the right — the conspiracist websites, 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 Obama was, well, Obama.

But now we have the Benghazi select committee, and a select committee is what you form when there might 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 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).

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 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 might 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.

Paul Waldman is a contributing editor for The American Prospect magazine and the author of “Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.”

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