In case you didn't notice, over the last few days we entered a new phase in the Obama presidency: the scandal phase. What happened? It wasn't evidence of a crime being unearthed, or a confession from a conspirator. There was no sudden revelation, no arrests, no cancer on the presidency. Indeed, just a few days ago it looked for all the world like Benghazi would take its place with Solyndra and "Fast and Furious" as one more wished-for scandal that, despite the best efforts of Republicans, failed to take flight. Yet all it took was ABC News getting passed some emails between the CIA, the State Department, and the White House detailing how the administration argued over how exactly to talk about the attack in Benghazi to get things underway, and now we have calls for special committees and ramped-up coverage. There may not be anything particularly shocking in those emails—just the time-honored tradition of people trying to cover their asses—but internal deliberations being revealed, no matter what they contain, has given the media enough of a prod to start that scandal train moving, and before you know it everyone's going to jump onboard.
So suddenly it looks like this isn't going away, not because there was appalling malfeasance (or any malfeasance at all), but because once the train is moving, it's almost impossible to stop. Put together the right's desperate longing for an Obama scandal—turn on Fox News or listen to conservative radio, and you'll see eyelids fluttering in ecstasy as this story gains momentum—with congressional Republicans' helplessness in the face of pressure from their base, and the media's inability to resist a presidential scandal story, and this whole thing might not end unless and until Barack Obama is impeached.
"But that's crazy," you may say. And yes, it is. Furthermore, it would be unbelievably stupid of Republicans to push it that far, just from the perspective of their own political self-interest. But that doesn't mean they won't do it. It's a little glib to say that they'd do it because they're nuts, but the truth is that impeachment could well become the inevitable end point of a process that has nothing to do with the actual facts, with all the different parts of the conservative machine feeding coal into the boiler as the train gets faster and faster.
But let's take a step back for a moment. There is no such thing as a two-term presidency without some sort of scandal cropping up at some point, and what's most remarkable is that it took this long for the Obama administration to become embroiled in one. Is the fact that he made it through an entire term with no serious scandal a testament to the administration's integrity? Perhaps. It certainly wasn't for lack of trying on the Republicans' part.
But there are scandals, and then there are scandals. For instance, the Valerie Plame scandal, in which members of the Bush administration revealed the identity of an undercover CIA operative in order to discredit her husband, an administration critic, was a serious matter. But it wasn't nearly as important as, say, the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the Reagan administration sold arms to terrorists, then used the profits to fund the right-wing group of Nicaraguan exiles it had established in an attempt to overthrow the government there, which was a direct violation of a law passed by Congress. And even that was a step down from Watergate, in which Richard Nixon and people working for him committed a whole series of crimes. Lest we forget (and believe me, people have), the President of the United States was on tape ordering crimes to be committed, and in the end his Attorney General, his Chief of Staff, and his chief domestic policy advisor all went to jail, along with a couple of dozen other people.
Those were real scandals, not to mention the one 15 years ago that was the most lurid of all, despite featuring so little actual criminality. Maybe this time around we'll discover something no one has even contemplated—say, that Hillary Clinton discovered a low-level State Department functionary who was about to blow the whistle on her secret romance with a Mexican drug lord, whereupon she killed him with her bare hands. But probably not.
So what's going to happen? There will be more hearings, each one hyped by Republicans as the one that will "blow the lid off" this whole thing. They will fail to deliver much that's actually revelatory. Nevertheless, the volume of discussion and speculation will rise inexorably. Republicans will begin calling for President Obama's impeachment; first it'll be a few nutbar Tea Partiers, then it will spread to some of the seemingly more sane ones, and finally the desire for impeachment will be nearly universal on the right. John Boehner will know in his heart that it's a terrible idea, but he may be confronted with a rebellion: schedule an impeachment vote, or face a leadership vote. Boehner's choice could be between impeachment and seeing Eric Cantor take his job (whereupon there'd be an impeachment vote anyway). Don't forget that impeachment only requires a simple majority in the House to trigger a trial in the Senate, where a two-thirds majority is required to convict.
The Republicans won't get that two-thirds majority in the Senate, so the whole thing would be a colossal waste of time. They'll look increasingly unhinged as they beg for the president they hate so fiercely to be tossed from office, knowing all the time their crusade is doomed. And just like in 1998, they'll probably suffer losses in the 2014 mid-term elections, after the voters grow disgusted with the whole affair.
Or maybe not. Maybe Republicans will, despite the thrill they'd get from sacking the White House like a bunch of Visigoths in a battle frenzy, see how disastrous impeachment would be. Oh, I suppose it's possible that with enough committees investigating and subpoenas issued, some actual illegal activity might be uncovered. Anything's possible. But it's far more likely that what we'll see is a hurricane of feigned outrage over what turn out to be nothing but mundane and ordinary activities of the kind that go on in government every day. We're seeing it already; keep in mind that the Republicans' most serious charge revolves around the creation of misleading talking points. Stop and think about that for a moment. Not intentionally breaking laws passed by Congress as in Iran-Contra, not obstruction of justice as in Watergate, not perjury as in the Lewinsky affair. The creation of misleading talking points.
In other words, the most damaging charge for which there is even the wispiest scintilla of evidence is that after the Benghazi attack, some people in the Obama administration were worried the whole thing might make the administration look bad. And that's probably true. But it's not a crime.
That, however, could barely matter any less. The train is moving, and there may be no way to stop it.