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The case for impeaching Obama, reviewed

Chip Somodevilla

Andrew McCarthy, former federal prosecutor, long-time National Review columnist, and now author of Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama's Impeachment has some really nutty ideas. On page 23, for example, he accuses congressional Republicans of having "offered nothing but token resistance" to Obama's agenda since his inauguration. He also appears to believe that Obama is a hard-core devotee of radical left-wing politics. The sort of president who engineers "mob mischief against the law-abiding bourgeoisie."

But for all that McCarthy goes astray, liberals accustomed to narratives centered around the idea of dastardly Republican "obstruction" of the democratically elected Obama administration's agenda could learn a lot from marinating in McCarthy's perspective. Obama's great crime, in this view, is not a handful of misplaced IRS emails or a botched intelligence operation in Libya but the perpetration of "unconstitutional usurpations" that "are happening in broad daylight."

This turns out to mean, roughly, that Obama has continued to attempt to govern the country even though Republicans won a majority of House seats in 2010.

Rather than submit to the people's judgment and stop his effort to foist left-wing policies on the nation, Obama has simply attempted to find ways around congress' authority. His Environmental Protection Agency has used the authority granted by the Clean Air Act to try to curb climate change. His Department of Homeland Security has used prosecutorial discretion to protect DREAMers from deportation. Most of all, he has continued to plow ahead with the Affordable Care Act — implementing some rules while delaying others — even in the face of a congress that declines to agree to any form of legislative fixes or tweaks in its quest for total repeal.

McCarthy acknowledges that to many, Obama's willingness to do what he can through executive action "show him to be farseeing and pragmatic, not lawless." But, he replies, this is merely "the standard dictatorial self-image."

A long section of the book, meanwhile, is dedicated not to complaining about Obama's misdeeds but to putting forward a theory of the function of impeachment. McCarthy argues, persuasively, that it's a mistake to see impeachment as an essentially judicial process. It is undertaken by elected officials, and is meant to be a political action that serves political purposes. Republicans who want to defeat Obama, he thinks, should recognize that hanging him on some legal technicality proven beyond all reasonable doubt is not the point. Such violations are neither necessary nor sufficient to make the case for impeachment.

The real case is the political case. Obama's agenda has been rejected, and yet he continues to seek to advance it.

This notion that a wholesale defeat in a legislative election ought to lead to a wholesale turnaround in policy direction has some merit. His problem, in the book, is that as a conservative and an impeachment enthusiast he feels compelled to dress this idea up as a defense of the constitutional order. In reality, he is simply pointing out a major shortcoming of the American Way of Government. American elections simply don't provide conclusive resolution of political controversies. Democrats' sweeping victory in 2008 didn't let them govern with a free hand in 2009 and the GOP's victory in 2010 didn't force Obama to bend to their will in 2011. The 2012 election delivered a doubly-inconclusive result, with both Obama and John Boehner returned to power.

Most stable democracies don't work this way. On Friday, Obama delivered a somewhat bizarre press conference in which his opening statement was simply dedicated to bemoaning Republicans' unwillingness to pass initiatives he supports. In Germany or Italy or Canada, it might have been a prelude to an announcement that he was dissolving parliament and ordering new elections to resolve the logjam. But in America, logjams simply go unresolved.

McCarthy's idea is that, in essence, impeachment could be used as a logjam breaker. Presidents who seek to circumvent congressional obstruction could be disciplined through the political mechanism of impeachment.

The reality is that this will not possibly work. Impeachment talk may be good for book sales and Democratic fundraising, but to remove Obama from office would require an affirmative vote of 67 Senator. It's simply not going to happen in a polarized congress. And even if it did work, the 12th Amendment guarantees that Obama would simply be replaced in office by Joe Biden. The dilemma is rather profound. The late political scientist Juan Linz famously observed that US-style political systems had badly failed Latin America precisely because both the congress and the president have claim to democratic legitimacy and there's no clear way to resolve disputes between the two of them. Acting as if conflict between Obama and the House GOP is the result of some uniquely pernicious qualities of the president only exacerbates the dysfunction.

Yet for better or for worse, this is the system we're stuck with. Impeachment provides no real solution to the dilemma, and though daydreaming about it may fire up the base, it does nothing to resolve the underlying problem.

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