Can you get anything political done if you don’t know for certain that you have public support marshaled for a specific measure, such as a bill of impeachment? Should you even try?
For most right-wing commentators on the impeachment question – which has arisen because so much of what Barack Obama has done in office has in fact been impeachable – the argument turns on the answers to those questions.
Jeffrey Lord lays it out nicely in his 10 June review of Andrew McCarthy’s latest book, Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment. Lord summarizes the case McCarthy makes, and acknowledges its force. (The summary is a good place to start if you want to remind yourself of how many counts there are in any proposed list of articles of impeachment.)
But then Lord points out that impeachment is a political process: it has to be undertaken by elected politicians in Congress. And for them, the bottom line is whether the people are behind it. If they don’t have a strong sense that the people are calling for it, they will be swayed instead by political calculations about the next election (read: the fear that an impeachment effort would galvanize voters against the Republican Party):
[Quoting Paul Bedard in the Washington Examiner]
“150 days out from a general election is not a realistic time to begin such a solemn and Constitutionally important process,” said one advisor to House GOP leaders.
“That would have the opposite effect of what we are planning for in November. We are planning for fewer Democrats in the House and fewer Democrats in the Senate and less power for President Obama in January. Impeachment, which would never pass the Senate, and would rally Obama’s currently demoralized base, would limit, if not eliminate possible GOP gains in the House and Senate,” added the advisor.
A top Republican aide added, “that is an accurate assessment. The Democrats are divided on so many issues right now there’s no reason to give them a reason to rally.”
So again there is the standard GOP Establishment approach. Don’t do anything to screw up the election — and then once won? Don’t do anything to screw up the next election after that. And in the meantime? Just keep a goin’ along to get along. Never use the victory to do what the party is supposed to believe in.
Other writers, from Allahpundit at Hot Air to Jonathan Tobin at Commentary, have developed essentially the same points. Impeachment would cause Democrats to circle the wagons, so the American people would have to be overwhelmingly for it – to a level of obviousness equal with the people’s opposition to gun restrictions or amnesty – and it doesn’t look like they are.
That’s by no means a stupid case, as far as it goes. It’s not actually a case about impeachment, per se. It’s a political analysis of the prospects for an impeachment effort. Such an analysis is undoubtedly important.
But Sarah Palin’s call for impeachment (video below), far from being unserious, reframes the issue in a larger context. If Andrew McCarthy has made the prosecutorial case for impeachment, Palin makes the strategic case for impeachment. From her implied perspective, the prosecutorial case is a supporting effort. The main effort is removing Obama from office. The reason is that he is transforming America – fatally, unacceptably – in ways that are inconsistent with the provisions of our Constitution and our nation’s very founding purpose.
(For an illuminating contrast, compare the impeachment case against Obama to the one against Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton may have lied under oath, and there may have been a prosecutorial case for impeaching him. But was it necessary from a larger-context, “defense of the republic” standpoint to remove him from office? Did he represent, through his executive actions, an existential threat to America’s future that increased with each day he remained in the White House? The people didn’t think so – and the people were right, at least in the short run. The articles of impeachment against Clinton are well described as prosecutorial, in that prosecutorial discretion, in the sense of its ordinary meaning, was reasonably at issue in bringing them. Palin’s case, by contrast, is that exercising such discretion to refrain from impeaching Obama would be unreasonable, condemning America to an unthinkable fate.)
The burden of Palin’s case is actually found in just two sentences from her Facebook video. Speaking of what Obama is likely to do in the next two years to expand executive overreach, she says:
We can’t let what we know is going to happen next happen.
Right near the end of the video, she concludes with the following:
We’re in a lot of trouble and things are only going to get worse until we send this message, that it is time to impeach.
Palin is warning that there is an emergency for the republic that overrides the prescriptive calculations of politics. A natural follow-on question, from this perspective, would be whether we consider the conventions of politics to be a suicide pact. Must political analysis about factions and the next election dictate our course of action?
Although Senator Ted Cruz hasn’t joined her in this call for impeachment, Palin’s action is reminiscent of Cruz’s in the budget standoff in September and October of 2013. Cruz was roundly excoriated for breaking ranks with the party and forcibly exposing the Republican strategy for what it was: a tactical surrender. Clearly, Cruz wasn’t onboard with the Republican strategy. And that’s because he differed from the party leaders on the analysis of what the situation is.
That last sentence is the crux (or, if you will, the “Cruz”) of the matter. It is glossed over in almost every discussion of filibusters or impeachment, in favor of things people feel more certain about, such as the point that Democrats will always circle the wagons for political reasons, no matter what.
But it is actually the most important proposition in this whole debate. Is the republic in a crisis that ought to relegate the dynamics of electoral politics to a lower priority? Because if it is, then we can’t let the conventions of electoral politics be a suicide pact. We have to strategize as if there is no unbreachable game-theory context dictated to us. We have to strategize as if we can change the circumstances in which we are operating, rather than as if there’s nothing we can do about them.
Manifestly, this does not mean bypassing the Constitution or the rule of law. The Constitution provides a way to impeach and remove a president from office. With due respect to some other commentators, the Framers took great care in putting this option into the Constitution. They didn’t add it with the idea that trying to use it would only be a narrowly partisan or unserious endeavor. Of course calls for impeachment can be unserious, but they are not inherently so.
What it does mean is that an impeachment effort should be prosecuted thoughtfully and deliberately, in the context of a larger vision for the future. It isn’t enough to impeach Obama. I think the people actually sense that, even if they can’t articulate it. Obama isn’t the sole problem.
The larger, more basic problem is that our expectations about government and its role and functions have become badly corrupted. The whole proposition about that need not be laid out as a platform for the 2014 election. But correcting that problem should be our ultimate goal. If it isn’t, it won’t matter in the end whether Obama is impeached or removed from office or not.
In purely strategic terms, there’s another important point about this. If conservatives don’t have a larger goal than impeaching Obama, then anything that comes along can knock us off course in the attempt. Others who have prosecuted long-term strategies can vouch for this. The “impeach Obama” effort can tack and trim, but the larger goal of correcting America’s overall political course has to remain a true north keeping us on base course.
The scariest part of the strategy – at least for the GOP establishment – is changing the coin of political dialogue: consciously ceasing to accept the terms framed by the last century’s media-approved, leftist-defined conventions. Only some of our political and opinion leaders have the necessary facility with that to make headway – and headway will have to be made. More and more of the American people realize something is very wrong in our polity, but most will have to hear someone else articulate compelling ideas about what it is in order to frame their own thoughts.
There are very few politicians who are doing that fearlessly already. But I think we can learn from both Palin and Cruz on this matter, by looking at their approaches to the impeachment question.
Palin, whose political experience is executive, chose to make a categorical case for what must be done. That’s actually what an executive leader does. She didn’t hedge her case with a discussion of caveats and political obstacles. She assuredly understood that she would come in for a lot of criticism, but it wasn’t her purpose to deflect criticism. Her purpose was to make a case to the people for what needs to be done.
Cruz is an active legislator: no less a leader, but with a different perspective. Notice that although he didn’t explicitly join Palin’s call, he didn’t repudiate it either. He left the door open to impeachment (which has to start in the House, where he is not a factor) – and he wasn’t afraid to talk about it. Contrast that with John Boehner’s negative response to Palin’s impeachment call. It may not have been impolitic, from the standpoint of Beltway orthodoxy, but it was definitely astrategic. It leaves Boehner in an optionless, self-limited stance, with no place to go.
I believe conservatives need voices from both perspectives – Palin’s and Cruz’s – willingly but responsibly discussing impeachment as one option in a campaign to correct America’s course. Impeachment isn’t going to self-popularize, any more than any other major, path-breaking political effort ever does. If it is to be used, it will require clear, intelligent advocacy.
It may be that the optimal way to use it is to paralyze the Obama executive with it, even if Obama isn’t ultimately removed from office. (It’s a valid and serious question whether Joe Biden would be a meaningful improvement over Obama in the Oval Office.) Meanwhile, discussing impeachment hypothetically could have a salutary effect, depending on whether the discussion conveyed determination and confidence or not.
There are some good reasons to wait until after November 2014 to initiate an impeachment. One is to see whether the Senate will change hands. The other is to get closer to an official outcome from the congressional investigations into the IRS targeting scandal and the Benghazi debacle (among other things).
I think there is value, moreover, in simply being seen to take a deliberate and reluctant approach to impeachment. There should be substantive discussion of it in public as a build-up to any actual motion: a period of defining terms and expectations. That effort hasn’t really started; most of what we’re seeing today is partisan boilerplate and defensive yammering.
But here’s what we can’t wait for. We can’t wait for something to come along and make it easy or cost-free to talk in a meaningful way about impeachment. Such talk is warranted already, just based on what we do know about what Obama has done. Each person has to make up his own mind about whether our political circumstances rise to the level of emergency. The people and the denizens of the Beltway – with very different experiences of the pain inflicted by the unchecked Obama executive – have reason to be at odds on that evaluation.
Ultimately, it’s not the Democrats, the left-wing media, or an inescapable logic of electoral politics that holds Republicans or conservatives back in treating the impeachment case seriously. It’s our own fear. That, we can overcome today.