While not implementing what I this week christened his Half-Arsed Doctrine in key geographical regions such as Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, or dithering over the growing immigration crisis on America’s borders, President Obama has been busy tinkering with his signature legislative ‘achievement’, the Affordable Healthcare Act, better known as Obamacare. Passed with undue haste and a lack of legislative attention to detail (‘We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it’) as the Democrats’ narrow grasp on a Senate supermajority and a majority of any sort in the House evaporated, the bill has contributed to great ruptures in the American body politic.
Rather than passing a universal health care bill that garnered strong bi-partisan support, the manner in which the legislation was steamrollered through, and the specific elements of the provisions, ensured that the Act remains contentious. The bill’s opponents have attempted pretty much every legal manoeuvre possible to have it overturned, including a telling day in the highest court of the land, in which the administration was forced to concede that the measure was indeed a tax, having stressed all along that it was not. Such efforts formed part of the GOP’s master plan for Obama’s time in office: Ensuring he was a one-term president.
When the best efforts of Mitt Romney proved unequal to this task in 2012, Republicans were forced to come up with a new plan, one designed to ensure that this president has more than one historical distinguishing star by his name. Reaching back to the late 1990s, they devised a plan to derail his administration by legal means. Whereas their predecessors attempted to impeach a popular, populist Democratic Chief Executive, they now would seek to sue an increasingly unpopular and far from populist president for his excessive tinkering with legislation and his continuing efforts to bypass the Congress.
This is a move based on political calculation and a very specific reading of history. Republican leaders know that they do not have anything like the votes to impeach President Obama, even if they could agree upon what to charge him with and get the House of Representatives to approve such articles. 67 members of the Senate are simply not going to vote to remove Obama from office.
Yet removal from office is not the aspiration of the GOP. The bigger target is Hillary Clinton and the forthcoming election of 2016. Right now, the GOP simply does not have anyone who can beat her. With that being the case, a strategy appears to be one of decimating the incumbent to ensure that a case for continuity cannot be made at the next election. In this, a leaf is being taken from the GOP playbook of the late 1990s.
Think the impeachment of Bill Clinton failed? Think again. Who won the presidency in 2000? Republicans dreamt of impeaching Clinton throughout his presidency, but recognised that if this were to succeed they would hand the presidency to Al Gore, recognised as being a weak campaigner, but whose stature and chance of electoral success would be greatly enhanced by the incumbency.
Despite their best efforts, perhaps, the GOP therefore arrived at their perfect scenario when its efforts to impeach President Clinton failed to remove him from office: A humbled and contrite chief executive remained in office, while his deputy and would-be successor found it impossible to campaign as his heir for moral and political reasons. It can safely be acknowledged, that the final vote in Clinton’s impeachment came not in the Senate Chamber in 1999, but in the Supreme Court in December 2000.
Such a play is underway once more, and again, Republican efforts in regard to President Obama do not need to succeed to be successful. The plan is simple: paralyse, neutralise and stigmatize.
There are 27 months until the next presidential election in November 2016. These are vital times for the president to establish his legacy. If he can achieve a lasting peace in a key global region, or enact meaningful legislation this would go a long way to relieving the sense of disappointment with his time in office. By paralysing his remaining time in office, his political opponents seek to prevent such a reappraisal from being possible. Paralysis of the president’s political activities and timetable would deny him the opportunity to focus upon and implement legacy projects and ensure that his presidency is lamented in history books, rather than lionised.
President Obama my be a lame duck, constitutionally prohibited from seeking a third term in office, but that does not mean that the Republicans are guaranteed to win the White House in 2016. Indeed, their recent track record has been poor. Defeated in the elections of 2012 and 2008, narrowly securing victory in 2004, the benefactors of a highly contentious decision in 2000 having lost the popular vote and having lost in 1996 and 1992, the GOP national campaign strategy is in serious need of a new approach as its natural constituency gets older and whiter, as the nation gets younger and darker. The GOP cannot necessarily win by advancing policy, but it can neutralise any opponents, and the obvious target is Hillary Clinton. If the GOP can neutralise her candidacy by tying her to an administration and a president under legal review, either via impeachment or prosecution, the GOP may be able to secure victory by default, in a similar patter to 2000. All this before they need to raise the shadow of Benghazi, or whisper anything about the oft-reported continuing private antics of the former president.
Any legal process against Obama will form part of his presidential history. As was demonstrated in the 1990s, such initiatives need not succeed to be successful. The stigma of a presidency under legal review will prevent the Obama administration from pursuing a meaningful, place a democratic succession in jeopardy and further alienate the White House from local politicians in close races. All of which aids the GOP in its efforts to further undermine the Obama presidency both in the immediate and long-term, and in its efforts to secure electoral success in 2016.
Such initiatives are hardly the methods of governing that can be found in US Politics 101 classes or ones that anyone would necessarily want to be implemented to run a modern superpower. It is, however, the way of doing business in the 21st century. It is the inverse of Clausewitz’s famed remark about War being the continuation of politics by other means. As politics becomes the continuation of war by other means, there will be casualties on both sides; the risk, however, is that democracy itself becomes the ultimate victim.