The definition of a conspiracy theory is that it requires belief in a secret agreement among other people in the absence of of any evidence of such an agreement. President Obama and the Democratic Party are presently peddling a conspiracy theory that Republicans have a secret plan to impeach him from office. Their reason for selling this theory is nakedly self-interested: to raise money from gullible donors and drive turnout from excitable but poorly informed voters who may be unhappy with the President’s job performance but remain personally loyal to him.
Democrats, of course, are just cynically exploiting anything that can help them gain partisan advantage. What is much more disappointing is the media playing along with this agitprop campaign, in particular by hounding Republican candidates across the country to discuss impeachment and then turning their answers into “Republicans talking about impeachment” stories even if they strenuously deny that they’re interested in such a thing (or, as commonly happens, if they duck the question or offer vague answers designed to avoid alienating voters who might very much like to see the President impeached or at least see something tried).
Anyone who was not born yesterday knows full well that this is a conspiracy theory – that John Boehner and House leadership have zero interest in a futile and politically counterproductive effort to impeach an unpopular lame duck President; that they have no secret plan to do so; and that there is zero chance that the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over Articles of Impeachment, will ever vote out such Articles against President Obama. Nor, among the many outside groups that have become major players in Republican primaries and have been busily engaged in many conservative efforts to pressure Capitol Hill on other issues, is there any organized effort to get Boehner and House leadership to take any other position. Reporters would never ask questions to Democratic candidates, on zero evidence, about something with so little chance of ever happening; they should not abet this conspiracy theory by continuing to cover it as if it was anything but a conspiracy theory.
The Democrats’ Love Affair With Impeachment
The Democrats’ coordinated “please, please, please impeach me” campaign is impossible to ignore, and it is as pungently desperate as it is transparent; successful Presidents do not spend their sixth year in office trying to goad Congress into bringing impeachment proceedings. You’ll recall that Clinton fought furiously against impeachment, and even timed U.S. bombing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq to coincide with his grand jury testimony and the impeachment vote, respectively; only in hindsight did Democrats treat the Clinton impeachment as a political gift. But Obama is begging for it. As Byron York wrote on Saturday:
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…”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….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.”
David A. Graham at The Atlantic walks through twenty-one impeachment-themed fundraising emails from the Democrats in a single week. The Washington Post notes the point of these emails, to sucker credulous Democratic donors into giving money the Democrats were not able to raise when they were talking about policy:
The Democrats’ congressional campaign arm pulled in $2.1 million in online donations over the weekend — the best four-day haul of the current election cycle — largely propelled by fundraising pitches tied to speculation that House Republicans could pursue the impeachment of President Obama…The surge in donations came after White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast Friday that the Obama administration is taking the impeachment chatter seriously…[Sarah] Palin’s first impeachment call, published on Breitbart.com on July 8, resulted in $500,000 in DCCC fundraising in the 24 hours after it appeared.
In spite of the obvious White House involvement in directing this campaign, Earnest later portrayed – laughably – statements by himself, Pfieffer, the First Lady and other Democrats, all used in DCCC’s campaign emails as something independent that the White House could not control:
White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday called repeatedly for Republicans to stop talking about impeaching President Barack Obama — but said he wouldn’t do the same for Democrats who’ve been fundraising off it nonstop in recent days.
“It is up to Democrats to make their own decisions,” Earnest said at the White House daily briefing. “I will leave it to Dem strategists who have a much better sense than I do about the best way to raise money for their campaign committees.”
The campaign extends to the Administration’s media flacks. As Nate Silver notes, a quantitative analysis of MSNBC and Fox News programming shows that Obama-supporting MSNBC is five times more likely to talk about impeachment than Fox: “The scoreboard so far in July: Fox News has 95 mentions of impeachment, and MSNBC 448. That works out to about 2.7 mentions per hour of original programming on MSNBC, or once every 22 minutes.” By contrast, in 2006, “Republicans tried to rally their base around purported Democratic threats to impeach President George W. Bush. Back then, Fox News was more likely to invoke the specter of impeachment, with 374 mentions of the term from Jan. 1 to July 29, 2006, compared with MSNBC’s 206.”
Silver isn’t the only liberal journalist to see this for what it is – Ron Fournier, who has been increasingly critical of the Administration in recent months, blasted the campaign as a cynical affront to Obama’s one-time politics of “hope and change”: “Welcome, folks, to the Impeachment Telethon, where straw men and stalking horses are paraded across the Washington stage while political parties beg for your money.” Ezra Klein admits that “Boehner is suing Obama so he doesn’t have to impeach him.” Yet a few die-hard flacks pretend, at least, to believe it will happen, like Eric Boehlert and Oliver Willis of Media Matters. (I offered Willis a $500 bet on Twitter that no Articles of Impeachment would ever pass the House Judiciary Committee; he countered with an offer to bet a hamburger, so we’re on.)
Impeachment: Often Threatened But Rarely Used
One of the lessons of presidential history is that it’s fairly easy to construct a theory of why a President should be impeached, and most presidents face at least some vague threats of impeachment, whether in newspaper editorials, loose talk amongst their critics on the campaign trail, or the introduction of proposed articles of impeachment in the House. George Washington was the first, in the controversy that erupted over the Jay Treaty in his seventh year in office:
As the public tempest had swelled, some wanted Washington impeached. Cartoons showed the President being marched to a guillotine. Even in the President’s beloved Virginia, Revolutionary veterans raised glasses and cried, “A speedy Death to General Washington!”…Using old forgeries, several columnists insisted that Washington had been secretly bribed during the war by British agents.
Lincoln, too, had Congressional opponents who met to discuss impeaching him. Impeachment bills or hearings were attempted against Presidents Grant, Hoover and Truman. In more recent years, impeachment threats have become routine ways for partisans to communicate the depth of their mistrust of a president. John Conyers, who would go on to be Chair of the House Judiciary Committee from 2007-2010 and remains its ranking Democrat, was the early leader among Democrats calling for Ronald Reagan’s impeachment back in 1983:
March 16, 1983: Washington Post: “Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) told the crowd that President Reagan should be impeached…for failing to deal with joblessness. ‘Why don’t we impeach Reagan for incompetence,’ Conyers said, drawing loud applause from the crowd. Conyers said later that if enough people demand Reagan’s impeachment, he would lead the effort in Congress.”
In late 1987, the House voted to support Conyers’ motion to conduct an impeachment investigation, but it went nowhere. Texas Democrat Henry Gonzalez also introduced bills with articles of impeachment against Reagan in 1983 over the Grenada invasion and 1987 over Iran-Contra; neither went anywhere either. Gonzalez introduced two sets of impeachment bills in 1991 against George H.W. Bush over the Gulf War, again to no effect. And in mid-2008, late in the presidency of George W. Bush, Dennis Kucinich introduced two bills attempting to impeach Bush, over the Iraq War and a fusillade of other foreign policy and national security disputes, presidential signing statements, complaints about Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 elections, and “Systematically Undermining Efforts to Address Global Climate Change”; Kucinich’s second bill attracted 11 co-sponsors, one of whom is now in the Senate:
Lee, Barbara [D-CA9]
Wexler, Robert [D-FL19]
Woolsey, Lynn [D-CA6]
Baldwin, Tammy [D-WI2]
Hinchey, Maurice [D-NY22]
Farr, Sam [D-CA17]
Towns, Edolphus “Ed” [D-NY10]
McDermott, Jim [D-WA7]
Ellison, Keith [D-MN5]
Filner, Bob [D-CA51]
Jackson Lee, Sheila [D-TX18]
A 2006 poll found that 49% of Democratic voters wanted Bush impeached. In 2007, Kucinich had attracted 26 co-sponsors for his proposals to impeach Vice President Cheney, including Baldwin and multiple members of the Judiciary Committee and Maxine Waters, the Chair of the House Banking Committee. In 2004, Congressman Charles Rangel (later the Chairman of Ways and Means) introduced a bill to impeach Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, and in July 2007, Jay Inslee introduced a bill that would attract some 31 co-sponsors calling for an impeachment investigation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
But most of those are not realistic threats that would actually result in the concrete steps required to turn idle talk and political stunts into a serious effort: an impeachment investigation, hearings and a vote in the House Judiciary Committee, followed by a vote in the full House. That process would look like the timeline of the case against Clinton:
September 9, 1998: The Starr Report on the Lewinsky matter is submitted to Congress.
October 5, 1998: The Judiciary Committee of the House votes, 21 to 16 along party lines, to recommend an impeachment inquiry.
October 8, 1998: The House of Representatives votes, 258 to 176, to conduct an impeachment inquiry.
Nov. 9-Dec. 10, 1998: The House Judiciary Committee holds hearings on impeachment.
November 27, 1998: Clinton submits answers to 81 question posed to him by the Judiciary Committee.
December 11-12, 1998: The House Judiciary Committee approves four articles of impeachment, relating to perjury before the grand jury, obstruction of justice, perjury in a civil deposition, and abuse of power.
December 19, 1998: The House impeaches President Clinton, approving two of four articles of impeachment.
January 7, 1999: The impeachment trial formally opens in the Senate. Chief Justice Rehnquist is sworn in as the presiding judge. The charges are read.
This is where all of this breaks down. Yes, it is likely that somebody sooner or later will introduce at least a symbolic piece of legislation calling for Obama’s impeachment. And yes, many Republican voters, frustrated that Obama seems to face no consequences for a variety of inept and lawless actions in office, will tell pollsters they’d like to see him impeached. And yes, Republican candidates want to avoid offending those voters, and a few have popped off about impeachment. But none of this makes it at all realistic to run around pretending that there is any likelihood at all that a serious effort would be made, and supported by Speaker Boehner, and Judicary Chair Bob Goodlatte, and others in House Republican leadership, to bring a bill to the Judiciary Committee, let alone the House floor.
The DCCC came out with a list of Republican House members who have mentioned the word, and it bears close reading. Some, like Steve Stockman and Michele Bachmann, present no threat to impeach Obama in 2015 because they are not running for re-election and will no longer be in Congress. Some are long-shot House candidates. Some are simply refusing to completely and categorically rule out the issue for all time, which of course is what any responsible legislator would do when an official has two and a half more years in office and nobody knows what else we might learn someday. Many are like this statement from Georgia Congressman and Senate candidate Jack Kingston, who is clearly just trying to sympathize with voter frustrations without committing to anything: “Not a day goes by when people don’t talk to us about impeachment. I don’t know what rises to that level yet, but I know that there’s a mounting frustration that a lot of people are getting to and I think Congress is going to start looking at it very seriously.”
For contrast, there are all sorts of things that get talked about on the Left – bandied by leading policymakers up to key party leaders, or supported by big chunks of the party’s base, or proposed in op-ed pages – that nobody ever thinks to quiz Democratic candidates on, because journalists apply a much higher level of skepticism than they do when dealing with Republicans. Just to pick a few examples:
–Should we reinstate the draft? (Democrats proposed this in 2004 mainly so they could run on the claim that Bush wanted it, even though Bush’s Defense Secretary was the principal legislative architect of the all-volunteer military. It’s been introduced again.)
You get the idea.
What Impeachment Is and Is Not
A little history also explains why the case for impeaching Obama – while in some places supported by perfectly reasonable arguments about his disregard for the law and for the responsibilities of his office – is not the sort of case that should lead the House to impeach a President, especially not in the teeth of public opposition and certain defeat in the Senate.
The Constitution establishes, in several places, the procedures for the House impeaching, and then the Senate trying and removing from office, federal executive officials and federal judges, but it is famously vague on the grounds for impeachment, stating only that the President, Vice President and other officers “shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” (Art II Sec. 4) Historically, given that charges meeting the traditional definition of treason are vanishingly rare (one federal judge was removed in 1862 for supporting the Confederacy), the only thing on which most everyone agrees is that public officials can and should be impeached for taking bribes. If you look at the 19 impeachments brought before the Senate, you will find a number of cases that are more or less official corruption cases.
Of the ten impeachment cases brought since 1912, nine were against judges (the other being Clinton); they include (1) four judges removed for one sort of corruption or other (one of whom, Alcee Hastings, was promptly elected to the House as a Democrat and is still there, now the senior member of the Florida House Democratic delegation; the last impeachment, in 2010, involved a judge who concealed, among other things, gifts he solicited from lawyers practicing before him), (2) one judge removed for perjury in connection with interfering in a drug prosection and another for tax evasion, and (3) two judges who resigned rather than face trial, one for various abuses of power and the other for sexual assault and a subsequent cover-up.
The Founding Fathers viewed impeachment as a necessary but also potentially dangerous remedy, and much of the Constitutional debate was over the division of responsibility between the House bringing the charges and the Senate trying them – and as played out in the impeachments of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, this process worked its intended goal of ensuring that a President could be impeached only if there was broad support for doing so, as reflected by the need for a two-thirds vote of Senators (support that must cross party and regional lines). By contrast, Richard Nixon’s resignation came about when it was made clear to him by Republican Senate leaders that an impeachment would have strong bipartisan support in the Senate.
The grounds for impeachment were always less clear, but the Founding Fathers tended to view impeachment mainly as a remedy for official misdconduct. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 65:
A well-constituted court for the trial of impeachments is an object not more to be desired than difficult to be obtained in a government wholly elective. The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself. The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.
As he continued in Federalist No. 66:
…An absolute or qualified negative in the executive upon the acts of the legislative body, is admitted, by the ablest adepts in political science, to be an indispensable barrier against the encroachments of the latter upon the former. And it may, perhaps, with no less reason be contended, that the powers relating to impeachments are, as before intimated, an essential check in the hands of that body upon the encroachments of the executive.
The Johnson, Nixon and Clinton impeachments cover the spectrum in this regard. Johnson’s stands as an example of a case for impeachment that was long on politics but short on crime: he was accused mainly of ignoring Congressional restrictions on his power to remove the Secretary of War from office, restrictions he viewed (and that most subsequent observers view) as an unconstitutional encroachment on Presidential power. So, despite Johnson’s unpopularity and the unpopularity of his lax Reconstruction policies, he was acquitted. Clinton’s, by contrast, failed in large part because it was long on crime but short on “injuries done immediately to the society itself” – there was and is little basis to deny that the evidence against Clinton would be sufficient to convict a private citizen of the federal felonies of perjury and obstruction of justice in civil litigation, but while the litigation in question arose out of his tenure as Governor of Arkansas and the perjury related to a sexual relationship in the workplace with a subordinate White House employee, much of the public viewed the whole thing as too tenuously related to Clinton’s conduct of office to justify removing a man whose policies were popular during a time of prosperity and relative peace. Nixon, by contrast, faced a case that covered both bases: involvement in covering up a burglary of political opponents and other official abuses of power such as the use of the IRS to audit political enemies.
Setting aside the fact that House leadership very clearly has no interest in doing anything of the sort, the problem with most of the theories for why Obama could be impeached is that they amount to disputes over the separation of powers and the President’s failure to adequately enforce the laws. These are serious issues, and many Presidents in the past have (often rightly) lost either fights with Congress, battles in the courts, or political standing with the voters for being on the wrong sides of them. But they are mainly in the same category of offenses as Andrew Johnson’s, and the proper weapons with which to combat them are political and in some cases legal, not removal from office. Boehner’s choice to sue Obama over the failure to enforce Obamacare’s employer mandate, for example, or Ted Cruz’s effort to defund Obamacare, or Rick Perry calling out the Texas National Guard to pick up the slack where Obama has failed at the border, or Congressional investigations of Benghazi – these are all traditional remedies for these sorts of offenses. Going the next step to impeachment is far less likely to lead to any positive policy ground gained for conservatives, and everybody on Capitol Hill knows that – you accomplish nothing simply by impeaching in the House and losing in the Senate, and you can’t win in the Senate without a double-digit number of Democratic votes, which will be forthcoming only if you unearth something that looks to a significant number of independent and Democratic voters more like Watergate. And if Congressional Republicans, who clearly do not want to engage in a losing battle over impeachment, want to address the frustrations of their voters, they are wisest to find additional ways to put real policy pressure on Obama through the power of the purse, the power of oversight subpoenas, and in a few specific appropriate cases possibly resort to the courts.
Savvier liberals/progressives know that any talk of impeachment happening based on anything like what we know now is a baseless conspiracy theory. And so, they have been openly preaching the flip side of the story: a plan for how Obama can make impeachment radioactive enough to get away with even more lawless policy actions. Here’s Sahil Kapur of Talking Points Memo with a typical example:
President Barack Obama’s promised executive actions on immigration [to grant work permits to potentially millions of immigrants who are in this country illegally, allowing them to stay in the United States without threat of deportation] are shaping up to put Speaker John Boehner in a bind between the passions of his conservative base and the GOP’s long-term viability as a national party….A Democratic congressional aide…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…White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer…predicted that the president’s immigration actions will “up the likelihood” of impeachment.
Even a massive grant of work permits with no basis in law, deliberately designed to provoke impeachment, would still fall under the category of separation of powers disputes, but if the President is contemplating such a course of action, the proper thing for reporters to do is ask Democrats why they’re looking for that fight.
The one exception, in my view, is the IRS scandal – a scandal very similar to what brought down Nixon, in that it involves not just legal violations that voters may regard as somewhat technical, but abuse of governmental prosecutorial power to persecute political adversaries. And that scandal started at the top with Obama’s own public statements and his own legal strategies. Republicans can fairly make a lot of political hay out of the story, and already have. But ultimately, without the “smoking gun” of documents tying the President more directly to the way in which the IRS carried all of this out, there seems no prospect that the story will go that extra step to where a lot of non-Republican voters would shame Democratic Senators into seeking the cover of calling for Obama to leave office. And until that happens, nobody in House leadership is going to want any part of impeachment.