The Republican Party, odds-on favorites to win the House of Representatives in six weeks, are looking to the future by looking back at their playbook of the 1990s past — a campaign platform long on rhetorical flourishes and short on a coherent governing strategy, talk of a government shutdown to force the President to the will of Congress, and now, as Jonathan Chait of The New Republic argues, impeachment of a President viewed as illegitimate.
To most observers, the three planks of Republican zealotry in the 1990s are viewed as failures. The Contract With America in 1994 produced no tangible policy results; its only success was as a tool to elect Republicans to Congress, a purely political end. The government shutdown of 1995 ultimately empowered Bill Clinton; perceived at the time as weakened from the failure to pass health care reform and the Democrats’ loss of both houses of Congress in 1994, Clinton emerged from the experience as a champion of government and its role in society. The impeachment of Clinton, over his extra-marital liaison with Monica Lewinsky, was widely viewed as a partisan witchhunt over personal failings that had nothing to do with Clinton’s fitness for office.
Why repeat these failures? To Republican elites, these three events are not considered failures. The Contract with America didn’t actually promise results, only that ten bills were brought to the floor of the House and debated — as they were. The government shutdown failed because Republican leaders — Newt Gingrich in the House and Bob Dole in the Senate — lacked the nerve to drag out the confrontation. And impeachment succeeded, even if it didn’t remove Clinton from office; impeachment forced Al Gore to run away from Clinton’s legacy of economic growth and provided an opening for George W. Bush to be a more formidable opponent in the 2000 election.
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. The Contact With America comes the Pledge to America. A government shutdown becomes another political tactic to be used as a cudgel. And impeachment? Chait: “If Republicans win and maintain control of the House of Representatives, they are going to impeach President Obama. They wont do it right away. And they wont succeed in removing Obama. (You need 67 Senate votes.) But if Obama wins a second term, the House will vote to impeach him before he leaves office.”
Impeachment is a political act, not a legal act, with political consequences, not legal ones. Conviction of Bill Clinton and removal from office was unlikely a decade ago. If Democrats retain the Senate in November of if the Senate flips to Republican control by one or two seats, a conviction for Obama would be certainly impossible; it is difficult to imagine a scenario where twenty Democratic senators defect from a straight party-line vote for acquittal.
Chait thinks that impeachment won’t happen until Obama’s second term. I doubt the Republicans will wait that long. Impeachment in 2012, in advance of the Presidential election, makes the most sense for the Republicans.
For Republicans, the goal in impeachment is not necessarily to remove Obama from office. If they do, that would be a bonus; they would have a weaker President in Joe Biden in office for a rump term, and a conviction and removal from office would absolutely play havoc with Obama’s reelection campaign. The real goal in impeachment would be what Republicans wanted in 1995 with the government shutdown — to assert Congressional supremacy and restrict the powers of the Presidency. For the Tea Party activists, who claim they want to return American governance to an originalist reading of the Constitution, impeachment would be a clear signal against Executive Branch over-reach beyond the Constitutionally-delegated powers. Even if unsuccessful in removing the President, the willingness of Republicans to use impeachment as a political tool against two successive Democratic Presidents would send a chilling message to future Democratic candidates about the powers and potentials of the office — to say nothing of the lasting damage it would do to the institutions of American democracy itself.
There is, however, a far more practical — and political — reason for Republicans to pursue an impeachment strategy in 2012. Congressional Republicans are going to have problems with the party’s Tea Party activists if, handed Congressional power the economic climate doesn’t change immediately, as Slate‘s Dave Weigel suggests: “There’s a very likely scenario in which Republicans are handed power by angry voters who are surprised when the party makes real cuts, extends tax cuts and… available jobs don’t immediately start surging.” On the Presidential level, the Republican Party is fielding a crop of weak and unelectable candidates — in the best of circumstances. For Congressional Republicans, impeachment in 2012 gives the Tea Party activists, already mobilized against Obama, a very tangible sign that the Republicans are in league with their desires. And for the Presidential crop of candidates, impeachment doesn’t need to remove Obama from office; it needs only to wound him enough that the Republican candidate can have a genuine shot at the office.
But what grounds for impeachment? Chait suggests that “an investigation by the likes of [California Representative Darrell] Issa will eventually produce a scandal”; Issa has already claimed that Obama has committed impeachable offenses, specifically in offering Joe Sestak a Pentagon job in lieu of running for the Senate against Arlen Specter. The American Prospect‘s Paul Waldman writes: “After November, there won’t only be a bunch of crazy Tea Partiers in Congress. There will also be some new crazy Tea Party governors, and a whole lot of crazy Tea Party state legislators. And they’ll probably be working together to come up with creative ways to make mischief and handcuff the Obama administration.” As we learned with Clinton, a “high crime and misdemeanor” (the Constitutional standard) means whatever the House Judiciary Committee deems it to mean. A manufactured crisis is a good as a real crime; witness Andrew Johnson’s impeachment over firing his cabinet secretaries.
Imagine this scenario. The economic crisis continues into 2012; perhaps it kicks over into a “double-dip” recession. (Paul Krugman suggests in today’s New York Times that the current foreclosure crisis may prove a tipping point.) If the economic continues to teeter on the brink, with millions out of work, foreclosures continuing and a permanent underclass created, especially if exacerbated by a forced government shutdown (as I explained could happen here), this could provide the Republicans with the perfect causus belli for impeachment. At the very least, it would prove a distraction to the Republicans’ Tea Party wing for their own failings on the economy and their role in the economic collapse. If Obama is impeached due to a cratering economy, Democrats in Congress will be forced into making the hard choice between voting for impeachment (in the House)/for conviction (in the Senate) or voting to defend the President against an angry and hurting electorate due to a national or global economic depression. Some Democrats would make the choice of their own political survival; vote to remove Obama from office, hold him up as a scapegoat, and save their own necks come the November 2012 elections.
The scenario provides the Republicans with a real chance to split Democratic elites, who would want to rally around Obama as Democrats rallied around Clinton in early 1999, from the party’s rank-and-file base, who would take the brunt of an economic depression. Worse, it could make Democrats toxic to the political center, giving a weak Republican candidate in 2012 and opening to win the Presidency. At the very least, impeachment would give Republicans a clear distinction with the Democratic Party as embodied by Obama. The prospective Republican presidential nominee could run, as George W. Bush did in 2000, as a redemption force in the White House; even if Obama were not convicted and removed, the Republican could (and no doubt would) cite the taint of the impeachment proceedings as a clear sign of Obama’s unfitness for the office.
Obama’s impeachment is a question of when, not if. The buzzing on the political right for Obama’s impeachment has already begun; The Conservative Causus is already sending out a direct mailer to potential voters, asking them to fill out a survey on the need for Obama’s impeachment. When Obama’s impeachment happens &mdash and it will happen, in advance of the 2012 Presidential election, unless I miss my guess — American democracy itself may not survive.