Why Republicans Can't Destroy Obama

Over the past few years, liberals like me have pointed out countless times that the Republican party was being (or would be soon, as the case might have been) terribly damaged by the ideological extremism and general nuttiness of the faction that took over the party between 2009 and 2010. But we have to be honest and acknowledge that it didn't always work out that way. They were able to win a number of tangible victories despite the fact that the public doesn't look favorably on the things they wanted to do. In many cases, an extremist Republican ousted a perfectly conservative Republican in a primary, and now the extremist Republican is in possession of a safe seat. And of course, they won a huge victory in the 2010 elections. For all the fun we've had at the expense of people like Michele Bachmann, the damage they did to the GOP wasn't always as serious as we thought it would be.

But I think we're seeing the limits that the House Republicans' extremism imposes on their ability to accomplish a practical political task. The task in question is taking full advantage of an administration scandal or two in order to do maximum damage to the President. And they can't seem to manage it.

Let's look, for instance, at the point man on all these questions, Darrell Issa, who runs the House Oversight Committee. On Sunday, in an impolitic moment, Issa called White House spokesman Jay Carney Obama's "paid liar," making him seem not like a sober-minded investigator looking for the truth, but an angry partisan. Sensing an opening, David Plouffe tweeted, "Strong words from Mr Grand Theft Auto and suspected arsonist/insurance swindler. And loose ethically today." Plouffe was referring to some rather colorful episodes from Issa's pre-politics career (details here); though he was never convicted of anything, there were credible charges on both counts. In any case, it makes him something of an imperfect messenger for suggestions of administration wrongdoing.

But more importantly, Issa just doesn't seem to be all that effective at this role. You might say that even if the Republicans had a real ace in that chairmanship it wouldn't much matter, because the facts of the mini-scandals just don't leave them much to work with. On the ultimate questions, like "Can they impeach the President over this?" that's probably true, but along the way they might be having more of an impact.

And Issa isn't the only one making himself look a little foolish. You've got all kinds of Republican members of Congress, including quite influential ones, talking about a fictional White House "enemies list" and making one baseless accusation after another which fall apart under even cursory scrutiny. As Steve Benen says, "Initially, GOP leaders saw value in avoiding cheap shots—they knew that if the story became a partisan food fight, it wouldn't be taken seriously, and the political costs to President Obama would be limited. But as is usually the case, the overreach instinct among Republican partisans is simply uncontrollable."

I think these kinds of outbursts happen because hatred today's Republicans have for Barack Obama is completely genuine. If you compare it to how Newt Gingrich felt about Bill Clinton, it has a much harder edge. Yes, Gingrich wanted to destroy Clinton (and his rank-and-file despised Clinton), but he was driven more than anything else by his own grandiosity. He made plenty of strategic miscalculations, but it wasn't because his rage got the better of him.

Anger can be useful. It motivates your supporters to work, organize, and vote. But eventually it can be your undoing if what the moment requires is something more careful and methodical. And there isn't even anyone leading and coordinating this effort. It isn't Issa, who's blundering about. It isn't John Boehner, who can barely hang on to his job (read this story, which contains the interesting news that a group of House Republicans were about to oust Boehner until God told them to back off for a while). Nobody's in charge. All they know is that they hate Barack Obama, but that isn't nearly enough.

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