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Back to the future: Benghazi, Republicans and the urge to impeach

A US flag lies in the wreckage of the Benghazi consulate, stormed on September 11 2012 in an attack that saw the US ambassador and three others killed. EPA/Stringer

Are US Republicans set to attempt to impeach another Democratic president?

Utah representative Jason Chaffetz suggested US president Barack Obama could face impeachment over his administration’s response to the attacks against the American embassy in Benghazi nine months ago. “They purposefully and willfully misled the American people,” Chaffetz claimed, “and that’s unacceptable.”

Chaffetz was not the first Republican to float the idea of impeachment over Benghazi. A week earlier, Oklahoma senator James Inhofe told radio host Rusty Humphries: “People may be starting to use the I-word before too long”.

“The I-word meaning ‘impeachment’?” Humphries clarified. Inhofe confirmed that was the one, though he noted successfully impeaching the president would first require Republicans to win control of the Senate.

It would require a good deal more than that, however. Because nine months of Republican-led accusations and investigations have ended not with a bang but a whimper. Inhofe said of Benghazi:

Of all the great cover-ups in history — the Pentagon Papers, Iran-Contra, Watergate, all the rest of them — this … is going to go down as the most egregious cover-up in American history.

Inhofe’s statement is useful as a study in hyperbole but little else. When the White House released emails that showed how the administration developed its talking points on Benghazi for the media, “the most egregious cover-up in American history” turned out to be a bit of interagency squabbling mixed with caution about getting ahead of an unfolding national security story layered with classified information. “I was told there was going to be a cover-up,” Slate’s John Dickerson huffed after reading the hundred pages of Benghazi emails. Instead he found, as Obama said at a recent press conference, “There is no there there.”

So if there is no “there” in the Benghazi cover-up, what’s behind all the impeachment talk?

Impeachment threats have become a second-term rite of passage. Whispers of “impeachment” have become a hallmark of second-term presidents since Richard Nixon resigned from office four decades ago. During the first four years of a presidency, the opposition party focuses on preventing re-election. In the lead-up to the 2010 midterm elections (in which the GOP won historic victories), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made this focus clear. “The single most important thing we want to achieve,” he said in an interview, “is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Failing that, the opposition tries to oust the president through impeachment. For Ronald Reagan, it was the Iran-Contra hearings. For Bill Clinton, it was sex in the Oval Office. For George W. Bush, it was 35 articles of impeachment largely revolving around the Iraq War. The Republicans are making their first impeachment bid on Benghazi, but should that fail they have the IRS and AP phone records scandals waiting in the wings.

Impeachment is another form of obstructionism. The current GOP has made an art form of blocking legislation. The last major bill to pass the Senate was the Dodd-Frank financial-reform legislation. It passed on July 15, 2010. For those keeping track: that’s more than 1,000 days ago.

When it comes to Obama’s second-term agenda, the GOP would like to see that trend continue. Every day spent scandal-squashing is a day not spent on other legislative priorities. The White House Chief of Staff has mandated White House staff allocate no more than 10% of its time to scandal management. The Republicans would like to tack an extra zero on that percentage.

President Obama and former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announce the Benghazi attacks in late 2012. Will Obama now face impeachment for his handling of the affair? EPA/Michael Reynolds

Impeachment talk escalates the sense of scandal. So far, the American people haven’t gotten exercised about Benghazi. Yes, a recent CNN poll shows the majority thinks it’s an important issue, but those numbers are largely driven by Republican respondents. Moderates and Democrats tend to trust that the Obama administration was acting on the best information it had at the time.

The Benghazi story is confusing. It seems to largely be about the talking points Ambassador Susan Rice used on the Sunday morning shows five days after the Benghazi attacks. The GOP has called her comments “misleading”. Yet Americans haven’t managed much outrage over being misled. The public expects spin on the Sunday shows, and they grant a good deal of leeway on national security issues. With nothing to shock the conscience, all Republicans can do is elevate the appearance of scandal. Rattling on about impeachment is one way to do that.

Impeachment talk over Benghazi is the Republicans’ opening gamut for 2016. Should Hillary Clinton run in 2016, she will be a lock for the Democratic nomination and a formidable candidate in the general election. Already well-liked by Democrats, her popularity skyrocketed during her tenure as Secretary of State.

Which is why turning the administration’s response to Benghazi into “high crimes and misdemeanors” is so critical for Republicans. Clinton was Secretary of State during the attacks; the State Department played a key role in drafting the talking points. Republican response on Benghazi before the 2012 election centred primarily on Obama, but since then has come to encompass Clinton as well. When Rusty Humphries interviewed Senator Inhofe about impeachment, both Inhofe and Humphries focused on Clinton more than Obama. Expect that trend to continue as Republicans try to bloody Clinton up in advance of 2016.

So for all the talk of impeachment, will Obama face impeachment hearings? Don’t count on it. The Clinton impeachment hearings damaged the Democratic administration, but they damaged the Republicans even more.

The memory of that overreach has led some Republican leaders to urge caution and restraint.

But given its utility for obstruction and destruction, while the reality of impeachment is remote, the rhetoric of impeachment is here to stay.

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