Last year, the Republican political strategy for the midterms was clear: Obamacare, Obamacare, Obamacare. In December, Representative Paul Ryan even promoted his bipartisan budget deal with Senator Patty Murray as a way to keep the heat on the Affordable Care Act: "We also don’t want to have shutdown drama so we can focus on replacing Obamacare." A functioning website and eight million enrollees later, the law is no longer guaranteed to work in Republicans' favor. So the party's shifting to a new strategy that carries even greater risks: that Barack Obama is a lawless president.
Republicans are in excellent position to pick up Senate seats in November. They have the structural advantages of a favorable Senate map, stronger historical turnout in midterm elections, and the sixth-year curse. Obamacare will remain a potent issue in red states, but with all the good news lately about the law, the opposition has lost its bite. Senate Republicans were largely complimentary of Sylvia Mathews Burwell at her confirmation to become the next Secretary of Health and Human Services. When House Republicans invited insurers before them last week, they were disappointed to find that their testimony refuted the House GOP’s “study” that a large percent of Obamacare enrollees were not making payments. Both of these events went largely unnoticed—something that never would have happened if the law was still struggling.
What did make news last week was the Special Select Committee on Benghazi convened by House Speaker John Boehner. The impetus for the committee is the release of the previously-withheld memo from Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes that laid out the talking points for then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice before her infamous Sunday show appearances in 2012. The memo demonstrated that while the Obama administration was certainly intent on spinning the incident in the best political light, Rice did not lie to the American people and there was no cover-up. Nonetheless, Boehner has put this at the top of the agenda for House Republicans, Obamacare be damned.
This represents a shift in the Republican Party’s political strategy from a focus on Obamacare’s failures to Obama’s “lawless” presidency. Republican politicians have accused Obama of breaking the law and ignoring the Constitution countless times, but until now, it was not their top political strategy. This tactical change makes sense. Obamacare is no longer struggling and Democrats are putting Republican congressional candidates in difficult positions over the Medicaid expansion. Criticism of Obama’s lawlessness will rile up the base and bolster turnout.
But this strategy carries considerable risk as well: Republicans could lose control of it. It’s only a short step from calling Obama lawless to calling for his impeachment. Some conservatives have already called for it, in fact. Those voices are rare, but Dave Weigel noted last week that more people on the right are starting to make those calls, led by National Review columnist Andrew McCarthy with his upcoming book, Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment. As Republicans learned in the 1990s, impeachment trials are terrible politics. That should at least give GOP leaders pause as they plan their midterm strategy.
It’s a long time between now and November. If Republicans intend to campaign on Obama’s lawlessness, they shouldn’t be surprised to discover more of the base clamoring for impeachment. The Benghazi hearings will only exacerbate these calls. If President Obama takes executive action this summer to ease undocumented-immigrant deportations, as many expect, that will only lead to more calls. As 26 Senate Republicans wrote in a letter to Obama in April, “Our entire constitutional system is threatened when the Executive Branch suspends the law at its whim and our nation's sovereignty is imperiled when the commander-in-chief refuses to defend the integrity of its borders. You swore an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. We therefore ask you to uphold that oath and carry out the duties required by the Constitution and entrusted to you by the American people.”
The letter doesn’t specify what the authors would do if Obama fails to uphold the constitution as they deem acceptable, but the broad implications of their words are clear: Republicans will not sit idly by if Obama takes executive action on deportations. They plan to make it a national issue. That's a risky strategy, but it's not like Republicans have many options. For far too long, they assumed that Obamacare was guaranteed to win them votes. That’s no longer the case, and their failure to develop a Plan B is on full display.
Danny Vinik is a staff writer at The New Republic.