Inside the GOP plot to undermine Hillary Clinton's presidency
When you're addicted to something, you often need to hit "rock bottom," a place where the depths of your depravity and misery are so obvious that there is simply no choice but to move on to a different path. If the polls are right and Hillary Clinton becomes president of the United States, one might think that from a national political standpoint, the Republican Party will have hit rock bottom.
It would mean that they lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, a truly historic run. With at least 12 years in control of the White House, Democrats will be able to entrench Barack Obama's accomplishments and remake the Supreme Court (and all the other federal courts) for a generation. And meanwhile, the GOP will have discredited itself for some time to come by asking American voters to make Donald Trump the most powerful human being on earth.
That sure sounds like rock bottom. So what will Republicans' next move be? A big part of the strategy is to embark on another search for scandal.
As David Weigel of The Washington Post reported on Wednesday, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, Jason Chaffetz, is planning on "spending years, come January, probing the record of a President Hillary Clinton." Republicans will start by continuing to investigate everything she did when she was secretary of state, and just keep on going with whatever ghastly crimes she commits as president. Welcome back to the 1990s.
Of course, the Oversight Committee's job is oversight. And Rep. Chaffetz is much smarter than the person who preceded him in that position, Darrell Issa; Issa's probes of the Obama administration were far more likely to end with Issa looking foolish than with the administration being embarrassed, and Chaffetz is unlikely to commit as many pratfalls. But it's a hint that Republicans are in no mood for a "honeymoon" with the new president, where everyone says they hope they can get along and make important progress for the good of the country. It'll be open warfare from Day 1.
That's dependent on Republicans retaining control of the House, which they will probably do. As long as they have the chairmen's gavels, they can mount whatever investigations they want and drown the administration in subpoenas. And look, oversight is important. It can be done in a responsible way that ferrets out wrongdoing and keeps the administration honest. But how much confidence should we have that Republican lawmakers are capable of that?
To answer that question, all you have to do is look at what the last eight years have been like. It isn't encouraging.
Take Benghazi, about which many Republicans are still livid. There were eight separate congressional investigations into the attack that killed four Americans. Clinton's emails will eventually get just as vigorous an examination, with the fact that she has not yet been placed in leg irons spurring every new hearing.
Unfortunately for Republicans, this will be exactly what their base demands. After all, you can't go through an election in which your presidential nominee leads daily chants of "Lock her up! Lock her up!" and then think all that rage will just disappear. Talk radio and Fox News (invigorated by Clinton's election; partisan media are never happier than when they have a president from the other party at whom to shake their fists) will fan the flames, telling their audiences every day that Clinton is a villain of near-infinite malevolence and any Republican who fails to thrust his sword at her dark heart is nothing but a coward worthy of a primary challenge from the right.
In a certain way, it's hard to blame the House Republicans who will take up this cause. As they've learned in the last few years, having a congressional majority with a president from the other party is almost as bad as not having the majority at all. When the threat of vetoes means you can't legislate to put your priorities into action, what are you left to do? Digging up dirt on the administration is about the only way to feel any power. And you might just find something truly awful, or failing that, create enough appearance of scandal to make her re-election less likely.
The trouble, though, is that being driven by the search for scandal could prevent the GOP from making the changes required to give it a chance to win back the White House. If you get too caught up in your conviction that your opponents are twisted by evil and engaged in an endless criminal conspiracy, you can become convinced that all you need to do to win is get the goods on them. That belief could stop Republicans from making the kinds of changes that would enable them to broaden their appeal.
And that's their real challenge. In 2016, a party worried about whether it could do more than appeal to angry white men nominated a candidate who can do nothing else. They may find a way to put this election behind them, but so far the signs aren't promising.