Does The GOP Want Impeachment to be the Issue for the Midterms?
How Boehner Painted Himself in a Corner on Impeachment
Pity John Boehner. “This is not about impeachment,” the House speaker said hopefully two weeks ago, as he announced plans to sue President Obama for “not faithfully executing the laws.” But now Sarah Palin has proven otherwise, using Boehner’s own reasoning to mock the lawsuit as ineffectual and demand impeachment, raising the possibility that the debate could cast a pall over the midterm elections
The last thing the GOP establishment wants—and Boehner is the closest thing the party has to a leader—is for the midterms to turn on impeachment, a risk that has already materialized in the Iowa Senate race, where Republican nominee Joni Ernst had to disavow her pro-impeachment statement from the primary. No credible polling on impeaching Obama exists. But the Washington Post reminded us last month that on the eve of the vote to impeach President Bill Clinton, with the Republican leadership making a full-court press, only 30 percent of the country was in favor, slightly less than the percentage of the country that calls itself “conservative.” Support for impeaching Obama is unlikely to reach even that limp level, effectively appealing to only the right-wing fringe.
Everything Boehner has done in the past 18 months has been with an eye toward containing Tea Party extremism, in order to keep the political waters still and let the 2014 map do the work of protecting incumbent House Republicans and deposing Senate Democrats in reddish states.
And he has gone to great lengths. Boehner delicately navigated around potential pitfalls such as providing Hurricane Sandy relief and expanding the Violence Against Women Act, ignoring the informal GOP rule against moving bills that lack support from the “majority of the majority.” He rammed through the Medicare “doc fix” by voice vote, without informing all House members in advance and without most of them present, avoiding a dust-up with doctors by muzzling penny-pinching conservatives who wanted the higher reimbursement rates paired with up-front spending cuts. And he walked a fine line on last fall’s government shutdown, granting the Tea Party’s wish to have one, but pulling the plug before a debt default trashed the economy and the Republican Party brand.
Boehner never got the credit he deserved for his fancy footwork, which put outside groups like Heritage Action on the defensive and roused establishment players like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Yet he made one significant misstep.
The June announcement of the lawsuit now looks like an unforced error. But it was February when Boehner inadvertently got the impeachment ball rolling.
At the time, Boehner had just failed to impress his caucus with a plan to legalize the 11 million undocumented immigrants now living in the United States. Caught between his desire to reach out to Latinos and his commitment to maintaining party unity, Boehner sought to shift blame for the stalemate to the president, declaring, “There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws. And it’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”
What might have seemed to Boehner as a clever bit of misdirection also validated an incendiary charge that would easily combust into an allegation of law-breaking.
Making the charge even more reckless was Boehner’s obvious insincerity. In April, he deliberately sabotaged his earlier message at his hometown Rotary Club, saying of his Republican caucus on immigration reform, “Here’s the attitude. Ohhhh. Don’t make me do this. Ohhhh. This is too hard.” He went on: “We get elected to solve problems and it’s remarkable to me how many of my colleagues just don’t want to.” But he proved unwilling to seriously lean on his own members. A few days later, he scurried back to questioning Obama’s fealty to the law, saying, “the biggest impediment we have to immigration reform is that the American people don’t trust the president to enforce or implement the law that we may or may not pass.”
Boehner’s insincerity conjures up Jack Nicholson’s Melvin Udall, who said in the 1997 romcom “As Good As It Gets,” “maybe I overshot a little, because I was aiming at just enough to keep you from walking out.”
Boehner might have been aiming for just enough to keep the party from splintering before the primary elections, but instead he established the predicate for impeachment, jeopardizing Republican chances to win complete control of Congress in November.
If you believe the president isn’t following the law, impeachment is the logical next step. However, impeachment is completely illogical if you believe “we get elected to solve problems” and not play political games. Since Boehner knew he would never take such a radical step, he should never have embraced the rationale for that step.
Yet he did, and in doing so, painted himself into a corner.
When he informed Obama on June 24, during an event celebrating the Presidents Cup golf team, that the House would not vote on immigration reform this summer, he knew from the president’s past statements that an executive order on deportations would be forthcoming. With the fire Boehner had stoked within the Republican base, the speaker had few options. Respond with the usual statements, and get slammed for doing nothing and weaken his standing on the Right. Impeach, and risk losing the Senate, and maybe even the House in the improbable scenario that Democrats can ride the backlash to win nearly all of the few remaining competitive districts.
Instead, the ever-creative and wily Boehner announced his planned lawsuit, presumably hoping not only to suck the oxygen out of the impeachment camp, but also to pre-emptively frame Obama’s coming executive order as another power grab and mitigate the political gain Democrats might earn from Latinos—especially in the 19 competitive House districts where Latinos could play a significant role. Boehner was also careful not to include immigration as an example of executive illegality.
But the lawsuit gave impeachment oxygen. No one of consequence was touting impeachment before, just a few House backbenchers, plus harsher words from the South Dakota Republican Party, Glenn Beck and a book from a National Review editor. Granted, Palin may have lost much of her influence in recent years. But she still can drive media coverage, which can affect individual races, as we’ve already seen in Iowa.
Even if few Republican incumbents and candidates overtly embrace her call, impeachment chatter could still alienate moderates and awaken an otherwise sleepy Democratic base (case in point: the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out a fundraising appeal Wednesday in Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s name with the subject line “Sarah Palin”).
Furthermore, both the lawsuit and the impeachment push might help increase Latino turnout and risk an upset loss of the House. Palin’s call is centered on Obama’s immigration policy, even venturing into conspiracy territory by accusing the president of deliberating causing the current influx of Central American children. Perhaps feeling Palin’s pressure, Boehner acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that immigration might be part of the lawsuit, which could anger Latinos and drive them to the polls.
Boehner had another choice in February: deal with immigration reform. If he didn’t want to force the issue ahead of the congressional primaries, he could have simply kept intra-party negotiations going and held off votes without trying to prematurely assign blame. In fact, he still had the option to deal with immigration reform this summer, despite his past comments. But Boehner let the primary defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor rob him of political courage, instead of looking to the primary victory of pro-immigration reform Sen. Lindsey Graham as a source of inspiration.
Boehner was pretty deft in 2013 at preventing the Tea Party members from taking the Republicans over a cliff, without frontally challenging them and causing a party split right before the primary season. But in 2014, by putting party unity above all else, including addressing immigration reform, he may have unleashed a demon he can no longer control.