07.28.14 8:21 AM ET
The Absurd Impeachment Feedback Loop
Silly season has started—and both parties are trying to fund-raise off the fringe.
One-third of Americans now say that President Obama should be impeached, according to a CNN/ORC poll. This carries about as much constitutional weight as previous free-floating anxieties about the president being secretly Muslim, communist or born in Kenya.
The partisan breakdown of the Impeach Obama crowd is roughly what you’d expect. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans say they support impeachment and 35 percent of independents, with a very-confused 13 percent of Democrats bringing up the caboose.
But just because you’re a few beers short of a six-pack doesn’t mean you’re not somebody’s constituent—and so a small but determined band of dim-witted congressmen and conservative racketeers keep ratcheting up the impeachment rhetoric as a way of agitating the base ahead of the typically low-turnout, high-intensity, mid-term elections.
A brief history of how we got to an essentially absurd conversation about impeachment might be in order. Impeachment is always the final fantasy for hyper-partisans who want to remove a president from office and such rumblings are routine in the darkest reaches of grassroots politics.
The spark that brought attention to this particular cycle came from reality TV star Sarah Palin, when she penned a column this month declaring, “Enough is enough of the years of abuse from this president. His unsecured border crisis is the last straw that makes the battered wife say, ‘no mas.’”
Palin’s marching orders were followed briskly by right-wing talk radio hosts like Mark Levin. More conspiracy entrepreneurs then stepped in. The Restore America PAC ran a few ads on cable TV seeking to raise money for the quixotic effort (though as with all PACs the money given out will be far less than that pocketed by the people running it and their extended circle of consultants).
Even conservative candidates running in swing states, like Iowa’s GOP Senate nominee Joni Ernst, started to feel obligated to play to the base on this new litmus test, with Ernst saying that Speaker Boehner “should proceed” with impeachment if he sees fit.
But Speaker Boehner wants no part in this political suicide march. When asked about Palin’s call for impeachment, he dismissed her coolly. His long-promised (but so far unspecified) effort to sue President Obama is seen as an effort to deflect impeachment calls while still harnessing conservative anger at what they see as President Obama’s executive office over-reach. This past weekend, newly minted House Majority Whip Steve Scalise repeatedly refused to say whether he supported impeachment efforts when grilled by Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday.
The reason for the awkward dodge is clear. Impeachment talk is nothing more than the latest episode in the GOP’s six-year effort to harness Obama Derangement Syndrome for grass-roots donations and voter turnout while maintaining a degree of plausible deniability.
But this is a dangerous game with high potential for backlash. After all, the flipside to the 33% means that two-thirds of Americans believe that Obama should not be impeached and 78% say that impeachment should only be invoked for a serious crime like treason or bribery—which even the most unhinged Obama opponents would have a hard time proving despite their best efforts.
If House conservatives were goaded into pursuing impeachment proceedings it would alienate centrist swing voters and provide the latest evidence that the GOP is more interested in obsessive opposition to President Obama than governing the country.
Which is why the Democrats’ response to this impeachment could be considered inspired—they essentially called for more kabuki.
White House senior adviser Dan Pfieffer pronounced himself very concerned about the possibility of impeachment at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters. “I saw a poll today that had a huge portion of the Republican Party base saying they supported impeaching the president. A lot of people in this town laugh that off. I would not discount that possibility.”
Hours later, the Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee began to furiously fund-raise off the crazy, using media reports of Pfeiffer’s comments to declare that “the White House sees impeachment as a serious threat” and “Democratic Headquarters is at full RED ALERT.” A flurry of emails continued over the weekend, culminating in what they claimed were $2 million in new donations.
Beyond the hysterics that fundraising emails use to scare donors into opening their wallets, the whole incident provides an example of the feedback loop of modern politics—one side’s extremes quickly becomes a fundraising call to arms for the other. Nobody wins, but the professional partisans get to pocket cash by fanning the flames.
Democrats are trying to call Republicans’ bluff—there’s nothing they’d love more than an election-eve example of the Stockholm syndrome that seems to afflict the GOP leadership. Last time, Ted Cruz & Co. convinced their party to shut down the government without a plan past freefall and it all ended predictably. Democrats want to be thrown in that brier patch—it might be their best chance to win the midterms.
If your head is spinning at the Beltway cynicism, a quick dose of perspective ought to increase the velocity of rotation to Linda Blair-like levels. Professional partisans are experts in situational ethics. And back in the second term of the Bush administration, Democrats afflicted by Bush Derangement Syndrome pushed a similar scheme. In a nice bit of symmetry, 56% of Democrats said that Bush should be impeached in July of 2007, according to a Rasmussen survey. They were obliged by far-left Congressman (and current Fox News Contributor) Dennis Kucinich, who put forward 35 articles of impeachment against Bush rooted in accusations of executive over-reach, including warrantless NSA surveillance.
Executive over-reach was never much of a concern for conservatives not named Ron Paul when their party controlled the executive branch. Republican reaction to Kucinich & Co was predictable: 86% of Republicans said Bush should not be impeached, calling it absurd, extreme and an outrage.
These terms still apply even when the other guy is in the Oval Office. We debase our democracy by playing the impeachment card too casually—and it’s particularly offensive when its done by puffed-up, self-appointed defenders of the constitution with a profit motive.