A fairly ironclad rule of modern American politics holds that after a president has been president long enough, a faction of his political opposition will begin calling for his impeachment. A corollary holds that the president’s party will use that appetite for impeachment to raise money.
It is also true that presidents don’t want to be impeached, and opposition leaders don’t want to introduce frivolous or unsupportable articles of impeachment, which means for the most part we’re talking about a mutually beneficial pandering ritual for activist voters.
But for three interlocking reasons, the latest production of the ritual—the one that's unfolding right now—is much more interesting and potentially combustible than the one that unfolded during George W. Bush’s second term, when Democratic legislators introduced articles of impeachment and Republican campaigners used the spectacle of impeachment to raise money and increase turnout ahead of the 2006 midterm.
1) Republicans are more reactionary than Democrats
In the 1990s, the Republican establishment was skeptical about shutting down the government and impeaching President Clinton, but went ahead and did both of those things. Upon Obama’s election, we were assured that Republicans had learned their lessons and wouldn’t be repeating either mistake. But last year Republicans shut down the government once again in spite of themselves. And though House Speaker John Boehner hasn’t allowed conservative hardliners to walk him into a political cul-de-sac in the nine months since the shutdown, Obama will be president for two and a half more years.
2) Obama will be president for two and a half more years
For all their agonizing about Obama’s putative lawlessness, nothing he’s done so far has been tyrannical enough to invite impeachment, or so it seems. And if Obama never does anything again, it stands to reason he won’t be impeached. But Obama’s not planning on doing nothing. Most importantly, he intends to take more executive action to curtail deportations of low-priority unauthorized immigrants. When he announces his plan, the Republican appetite for impeachment will grow in proportion to the scope of the policy. If it’s a very broad action, more conservatives and Republicans will call for impeachment, testing Boehner’s control over his conference.
3) Boehner doesn’t have a great deal of control over his conference
There is no comparing Boehner’s influence over House Republicans to Nancy Pelosi’s influence over House Democrats. This has been evident for quite some time. It is evident, too, in their disparate responses to questions they’ve both faced about impeachment. On Tuesday, whether he intended to or not, Boehner left the door wide open, when he told reporters, "We have no plans to impeach the president. We have no future plans. … It's all a scam started by Democrats at the White House." That is … not entirely true. And it's remarkably less Shermanesque than Speaker-in-wait Pelosi’s statement after Dems won the House in 2006: “I have said it before and I will say it again: Impeachment is off the table.”
If Boehner had “current” or “future” plans to impeach Obama, Republicans wouldn’t be wasting valuable time filing an unusual lawsuit against him. But that lawsuit is meant to strike a balance that allows the GOP to channel its base voters’ resentment of Obama into midterm election victories without indulging their toxic, procedurally extreme tendencies. In that sense it’s best seen as a reflection of a real and growing (or soon-to-grow) desire to take it all the way. And as the entire White House political team is fond of noting, Boehner had “no interest in seeing a government shutdown” one week before he did it anyway. Republicans really are more liable to go where danger lies than Democrats.
In that sense, when Democrats at the White House, and congressional leaders like Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, play up the possibility of impeachment, they aren’t just pandering to liberals and raising money. They’re scraping at the stitches binding Republican leaders and party activists. And there’s no downside. The more firmly Boehner protests, the more dejected a significant segment of the right becomes. But the more wiggle room he leaves himself, the more the issue lingers over national politics in a way that damages Republicans nationally. Under the circumstances Boehner’s protestations are a sign of real frustration, and perhaps that he’s starting to recognize that the lawsuit was ill conceived.
Still, I’m not convinced that Democrats, including Obama, are eager to Jedi mind trick Boehner into actually impeaching Obama so much as they want the stench of impeachment to trail Republicans everywhere they go. I suspect they’ll be able to strike that balance up until Obama announces his deportation relief plan. After that, things get murky. But if Democrats truly welcome impeachment, particularly over something as politically crosswired as immigration, then Obama will go as far as he believes the law allows him to go, and let the chips fall where they may.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.