The South Dakota Republican Party is getting some attention for passing a resolution calling for President Obama's impeachment. This comes on the heels of Andrew McCarthy's new book, Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama's Impeachment, which argues that the legal case for Obama's removal from office is overwhelming. The problem, McCarthy says, is merely political will.
It makes me nostalgic.
In 2003, I was a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz when the city council became "the nation's first local government to ask Congress to look into impeaching President Bush on charges he deceived the American public about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and has used the Sept. 11 attacks as an excuse to crush civil rights." The resolution didn't much matter but it got a lot of coverage — perhaps more on the right than on the left. There's nothing a political party likes more than overreach on the other side.
The English language gets a bit fuzzy when it comes to American politics. The sentence "Republicans call for President Obama's impeachment" might mean that the official Republican Party is swinging towards impeachment or that a handful of people who mark Republican on their party registration form are calling for impeachment.
In this case, it's closer to the latter than the former. There's been no organized effort among congressional Republicans to impeach Obama. There's been no real support for impeachment forthcoming from congressional leadership. As Jonathan Bernstein writes, top Republicans could do more to distance themselves from the more extreme elements of the right, "but there's a huge distance between a few delegates to state party conventions and a few loudmouth talk show types yammering about it and the U.S. House of Representatives actually doing it."
There's a real problem in American politics where people of one party get overexposed to —and end up overweighting — marginal voices in the other party. It's a function of a more politically polarized media environment: there's more audience in highlighting the most offensive comments from the other side than there is in highlighting the most important. The result is liberals end up with an incorrectly extreme view of the Republican Party, and vice versa.
Which isn't even to say that important Republicans aren't personally sympathetic to some of the arguments for impeachment. But John Boehner was a congressman in 1998, when the GOP's impeachment overreach led to Democratic gains in a midterm Republicans should have won — and then to Speaker Newt Gingrich's resignation. It's not a play Boehner wants to repeat. (Slight sidenote: the impeachment of President Clinton is looked back on as a farce, and for the most part, it was. But it's easy, with more than a decade of distance, to forget how morally outrageous Clinton's actions were. Gingrich didn't have the family life to pass judgment, but fury at Clinton was bipartisan and nonpolitical in a way that has no precedent right now.)
Moreover, the clock is running out on Obama's presidency. The midterms are coming, and Republicans look to be in the command position: they don't want to do anything to interrupt their momentum. And unlike in the Clinton years, they don't control the Senate: there's no chance of impeachment going anywhere.
There's an argument, increasingly popular among liberals, that after the midterms Republicans will control the Senate and then impeachment proceeding against Obama will begin in earnest. Barring some gamechanging scandal, I doubt it. The GOP's anger at Obama won't overwhelm their desire to win the 2016 election. And a party that wants to make gains among young and minority voters isn't going to make them by spending two years trying, and failing, to impeach Obama. This is a party that is exceedingly rational about what's required to win presidential campaigns. They nominated Mitt Romney, for Pete's sake!
You can already see Boehner looking for ways to satisfy his base's belief that the Obama administration's lawlessness needs to be punished with his knowledge that actually attempting impeachment would be a disaster. This week, he announced his intention to sue Obama on the grounds that he has "not faithfully executed the laws" passed by Congress. It's a serious charge, but asked whether it could lead to impeachment proceeding, Boehner was dismissive. "This is not about impeachment, this is about his faithfully executing the laws of our country," he said.