Republicans Dismiss Impeachment As A Democratic Ploy, But May Still Face A Dilemma
While the news is dominated by headlines from Gaza and Ukraine, along with some rather alarming reports about an Ebola Virus outbreak in Africa that we haven’t touched on here, the American political world seems to be talking a lot about the impeachment of President Obama. It started, of course, with the comments by Sarah Palin that set off something of a political firestorm notwithstanding the efforts of top ranking Republicans to squelch that talk. Despite these efforts, polling indicates that a majority of Republicans support the idea of impeachment even while a majority of Americans oppose the effort. On Sunday, the new House Majority Whip, Republican Congressman Steve Scalise, dismissed talk of impeachment as a Democratic fantasy, and today Speaker John Boehner said basically the same thing in comments to reporters today. At the same time, Democrats have taken no small amount of glee in the whole spectacle, including launching what has been a rather successful fundraising effort based upon it. This, inevitably, has led conservatives to assert that the entire impeachment meme is little more than an invention the the Democratic Party and a biased media.
Consider, for example, this from Byron York:
In an almost farcical twist on the recent political debate, the Obama White House has joined the Democratic fundraising apparatus in what appears to be a campaign to encourage Republicans to impeach the president.
In the past 48 hours, first lady Michelle Obama, White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, White House spokesman Josh Earnest, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and others have raised the specter of an Obama impeachment.
The first lady was first to broach the subject, in a Thursday evening fundraising speech in Chicago. “If we lose these midterm elections, it’s going to be a whole lot harder to finish what we started,” Obama said, “because we’ll just see more of the same out in Washington — more obstructions, more lawsuits, and talk about impeachment.”
Top White House aide Pfeiffer really got the ball rolling Friday morning at a Christian Science Monitor reporters’ breakfast. “I saw a poll today that had a huge portion of the Republican Party base saying they supported impeaching the president,” Pfeiffer said. “A lot of people in this town laugh that off. I would not discount that possibility.” Asked whether an impeachment battle might be a “good thing” for the president’s popularity, Pfeiffer said, “We take it very seriously and I don’t think it would be a good thing. But I think it would be foolish to discount the possibility that Republicans would at least consider going down that path.”
A few hours later, at the White House briefing, Earnest spoke at length about the alleged impeachment threat. “Do you really believe that the president could be impeached?” Earnest was asked.
“Well, I think that there are senior members of the Republican political party or certainly prominent voices in the Republican Party who are calling for exactly that …” Earnest said. “There are some Republicans, including some Republicans who are running for office, hoping they can get into office so that they can impeach the president. That is apparently a view that they hold, because it’s one that they have repeatedly expressed publicly.”
At another point in the briefing, Earnest noted that “there are some prominent members of the Republican Party who have articulated their support for articles of impeachment. That is the view that they’ve articulated. What we’re focused on is the business of the American people.”
A few hours later, Pelosi and the Democratic fundraising machine joined in. “Sorry to email you late on a Friday, but I need your urgent support,” Pelosi emailed. “Yesterday, for the first time in history, Congress voted to sue a sitting president. Today, the White House alerted us that they believe ‘Speaker [John] Boehner … has opened the door to impeachment …'”
“With everything happening right now, I’m a little disappointed to see that you haven’t had a chance to chip in to defend President Obama,” Pelosi continued. “We could use your support today. ALL GIFTS TODAY TRIPLE-MATCHED!”
There are some Republican backbenchers who would indeed like to impeach the president, just as there were (more senior and more organized) Democratic lawmakers who hoped to impeach George W. Bush after Democrats won control of Congress in the 2006 elections. Back then Pelosi, the new Speaker, said flatly, “Impeachment is off the table.” Now, Boehner has said he “disagrees” with former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s call for impeachment, and many observers see his lawsuit against the president as an effort to placate GOP lawmakers while stopping far short of impeaching the president. But Boehner has not made a far-reaching, definitive statement comparable to declaring impeachment “off the table.” He might now be driven to do so, making the Democrats’ impeachment fundraising festival appear even more ridiculous than it already does.
Noah Rothman picked up the theme this morning at Hot Air:
This is journalistic malpractice. The threat of impeachment is a fictitious one. A television personality invented it and this White House, so bereft of governing strategies and rapidly bleeding popularity, elevated it. The press has a responsibility to note that, but the reaction has largely been to parrot Democrats.
But Barack Obama is not Bill Clinton. He will not be rescued by impeachment talk, and this strategy carries risks for Democrats and their allies in the press as well. So flailing and so embarrassingly obvious is this latest attempt to frame Obama as a victim of the GOP that it carries more than just the whiff of panic. And panic is contagious.
There’s no doubt that the Democrats are taking some no small amount of glee in all of this impeachment talk because of the difficulty that it puts the Republicans in, and in the past weekend alone they managed to raise more than $2 million dollars thanks to fundraising emails sent out that specifically mention it. They are also likely hoping that this kind of talk, which is clearly overwhelmingly unpopular with Democratic voters and also with the American public as a whole, will motivate voters to come to the polls in November and offset an expected Republican midterm advantage. Additionally, as I have said when I’ve written about this topic in the past, I think it’s fairly clear that the Republican leadership, and even a good portion of the people who are part of what would be called “movement conservatism” want nothing to do with the entire impeachment meme. Many of these people, most especially people like House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who were around the last time that the Republican Party tried to impeach a President, realize that the entire idea would be a waste of time since there’s no way they could actually obtain a conviction in the Senate, where 67 votes would be necessary, and that the act of impeachment itself would likely be deeply politically damaging to the Republican Party heading into the 2016 elections. For that reason, I largely take them at their word when they say that they are rejecting the idea of impeachment. However, I would submit that this is not the end of the story.
As Greg Sargent notes today, and as I’ve discussed before, it is rather apparent that the same Republicans dismissing the idea of impeachment as nothing but a Democratic fundraising ploy are also well aware that impeachment the President isn’t just a fringe idea in the Republican Party. Three recent polls, from Rasmussen, YouGov, and CNN/ORC International, have shown that a majority of Republicans favor impeaching the President. This support seems to be stronger when you narrow down to people who consider themselves strongly conservative and/or supporters of the Tea Party movement. While none of these polls have measured how strongly the respondents feel about the issue, or whether they consider it a priority or something that a Republican controlled Congress ought to do before thee President leaves office, it is plainly obvious tha the base of the Republican Party is far more supportive of the idea of impeachment than the dismissive attitudes of conservative leaders and Members of Congress would have you believe. I would submit this is why they have adopted the strategy of trying to blame Democrats and the media for focusing on this issue, because attacking the idea more directly risks potentially antagonizing a base that they need support form in the November elections.
As I have noted before, the leadership’s response to talk of impeachment is in many ways similar to the way that it reacted one year ago to the talk that conservatives led principally by Ted Cruz would force a government shutdown over the issue of defunding Obamacare. At this time last year, Republicans in the leadership, as well as prominent budget hawks like Senator Tom Coburn, were pointing out just how foolish and unworkable the idea was and the leadership in the House was seemingly making it clear that they would not permit themselves to be manipulated into allowing a shutdown. By August, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was openly deriding the idea. That position seemed to hold well into September and yet, when the time came for the decision to be made, the leadership found that they had been backed into a corner and had no choice but to adhere to a course of action that they knew could not possibly work.
As Sahil Kumar notes, it’s not hard to imagine a similar course of events unfolding some time in the next year or so:
“The zeal for impeachment among the radical forces has been building for some time, fueled by local talk radio demonization of Obama and by blogs and emails reinforcing the message. Boehner is smart enough and pragmatic enough to know that both the anti-immigration zeal and the impeachment fire are disastrous for the GOP,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “How long he can damp down the latter, especially if Obama takes a series of executive steps on the border, deportations and other immigration issues, is hard to say. But I will be quite surprised if we do not see a very strong impeachment drive next year.”
So, how could Boehner respond if the cries grow louder?
Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, said most Republicans understand that impeachment is “not a serious option” but said Boehner would face pressure to rebuke Obama’s move. He said Speaker would have other options to address GOP discontent, such as passing legislation in the House to reverse the president’s actions.
“And if the House passed a legislative response, it would not get past the Senate. But either way, Boehner would get at least some credit from the GOP for trying,” Pitney said. “There is some risk, of course. Democrats could portray the GOP response as anti-Hispanic.”
From a political standpoint impeachment is dangerous enough because most of the country opposes it. But impeachment over relief for undocumented immigrants is doubly problematic: it threatens to damage the GOP’s already weak brand with Hispanic voters, whom strategists say are critical to the party’s ability to remain competitive in presidential elections.
“Steve King is the gift that keeps giving. House leadership can’t or won’t contain him, and he’s come to define the party on immigration,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice. “He is so valuable to the Democrats, he should be on the DNC’s payroll.”
A Democratic congressional aide said Obama is on firm legal and public opinion territory with the executive actions he’s taken, and predicted that Republicans won’t be able to hold off their fringes on impeachment. “Impeachment is already a rallying cry of the opponents of legal immigration,” the aide said. “File this under the category of crazy ideas that typically would not get very far, unless of course the gatekeepers for the crazy ideas are House Republicans.”
Veteran GOP strategists are hoping Republicans are smart enough not to go down that road.
“I don’t think John Boehner will be taking any marching orders from Steve King,” said John Feehery, a former aide to House Speaker Dennis Hastert. “Every time a House Republicans mentioned the word impeachment in the same sentence as Obama the President raises another million bucks.”
Perhaps Feehery will be proven correct. It certainly does seem as though Boehner and the GOP leadership have learned a lesson from the shutdown disaster of 2013, for example. At the same time, though, these people have proven themselves to be particularly inept at winning battles against the fringe Tea Party base of the GOP over the past three years or so. Speculating that they wouldn’t be able to hold back an populist push for impeachment from that same crowd, especially when it becomes apparent that the ridiculous lawsuit they are about to file will accomplish absolutely nothing, or when the President takes yet action exercising Executive Branch authority to do something that Congress refuses to do doesn’t strike me as being all that far off the mark.