Ever since President Richard Nixon was forced to resign his presidency, or face sure impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives and removal from office by the U.S. Senate (actions by a Congress controlled by the Democrats but with the solid support of Republicans), the hard-right lunatic fringe of American politics—with some limited success—has tried to make impeachment a regular process of government. If you had not noticed they are at it again.
Currently, impeachment has become the weapon of choice by Tea Party and other hard-right Republicans. The likelihood these people will impeach anything other than their own credibility is zero, and given their existing lack of credibility by thinking Americans, this undertaking appears to be a minor risk for them. But it is more than harmless bloviating.
These thoughtless zealots are, in fact, damaging our democratic process by gaming the political system. Encouraging them is only slightly more irresponsible than pretending they are doing no damage whatsoever. If you are unaware of this movement’s activities and its consequences, let me explain.
Tea Party and Right Wing Republicans Make Impeaching Obama a Litmus Test
Last fall the “Impeach Obama” frenzy had spread sufficiently about the country to catch the attention of the New York Times,which reported on it, noting: Republican Congressman Kerry Bentivolio, a freshman from Michigan, was dreaming of impeaching Obama; Republican Senator Ted Cruz, the Tea Party freshman from Texas, wanted to pursue impeachment if he could find the votes; and even President Obama’s friend Senator Tom Coburn, the departing Oklahoma Republican, thinks impeaching the president has merit. Times columnist Maureen Dowd explained thrust of this movement for what it is: “For some of the rodeo clowns clamoring for impeachment around the country, Barack Obama’s real crime is presiding while black.”
This year, as the 2014 mid-term elections approach, conservative Republicans have given the Impeach Obama movement new energy. Tea Party promoters breathlessly push the idea, claiming increasing numbers in Congress are with them, and even mainstream pundits like Washington Post editor and well-known Watergate reporter Bob Woodward are “talking” about impeaching Obama. Some groups, like Overpass for America, track impeach rallies (two people waving an impeachment sign make a rally.) And the movement even has a manual: Impeachable Offenses: The Case for Removing Barack Obama from Office.
Many of the Tea Party efforts are merely fundraising techniques, like the Impeach Obama Campaign and the Impeachment Petition. Other conservative GOP activists see publicly declaring a willingness to impeach Obama as a loyalty oath, and they will not support any candidate for federal office who fails to subscribe to it. As recently noted of this latest conservative political foolishness: “On the right, impeachment has become the wildfire crucible, and the purest purity test . . . .” For this reason, they have not written it off: “Because everything about and around Barack Obama has always been high stakes, impeachment represents the current politics’ critical mass . . . [and it] is just one more opportunity for trying to bring a presidency down. Over the next 30 months, rage at Obama will reach such velocity as to hurl off or suck under those who ride its whirlwind.”
In fact, there is not a scintilla of evidence that President Obama has committed an impeachable offense, which the Constitution prescribes as: “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Because “high crimes and misdemeanors” is not a well-defined term the impeachment promoters find a basis on which to make a claim. Those claims run from his purportedly not being a natural born American (as required by the Constitution to be president) to any program or action with which they are unhappy, with Obamacare at the top of every list. In fact, to read the purported charges against President Obama, it is clear his detractors have adopted a concept that any president (or other federal official) can and should be impeached if found at odds with a majority of the House of Representatives and removed from office if they can find two thirds (67 members) of the Senate to so vote.
At present, with Republicans controlling the House—and the Tea Party types controlling the Republican caucus—Republicans could easily impeach Obama, as Republicans did President Clinton in December, 1998, with a simple majority. But with Democrats currently controlling the Senate, the impeachment of Obama would immediately die. It appears that after the 2014 election, Republicans will maintain control the House, and they may gain control of the Senate. Suffice it to say, however, no credible pundit or political prognosticator has suggested any scenario that would give Republicans 67 votes in the Senate—the two thirds needed to impeach Obama.
Yet increasing numbers of conservative activists are pushing to impeach Obama because they simply don’t like him, or they enjoy repulsive politics. Indeed, Allen West (remember him) wants to impeach Obama for his “arrogance”—which is so far beyond the Constitution no more need be said. Because impeachment has become just another partisan tool that conservatives are willing to abuse to get their way, or make their point, or stir their base and raise money, conservative Republicans are now also expanding this tactic at the state level.
Republican Efforts to Impeach a Democratic Governor
On April Fools’ Day I noticed a story that first caused a double-take, and when I looked closely I thought surely it was a prank. But it was no joke. The headline in the AP story read: “Impeach Nixon efforts referred to Missouri panel.” The story reported that a handful of conservative Republican lawmakers in Missouri are seeking to remove their moderate Democratic Governor, Jeremiah W. (“Jay”) Nixon.
They have filed three articles of impeachment against the governor, and they are ridiculous: First they seek to oust Governor Nixon for issuing an executive order directing state tax officials to accept joint tax returns from same-sex couples who married legally in other states. (Standard GOP homophobia.) The second article claims the governor did not move with sufficient speed to call special elections for vacant legislative seats. (Legislators do not get to make executive decisions.) And the third article asserts the governor failed to satisfactorily punish those involved in a dispute over concealed weapons permits. (Gun nuts want to punish others who are not gun nuts.) In short, these are pure political disagreements being used to justify calls for impeachment.
The Missouri Constitution states: “All elective executive officials of the state . . . shall be liable to impeachment for crimes, misconduct, habitual drunkenness, willful neglect of duty, corruption in office, incompetency, or any offense involving moral turpitude or oppression in office.” This provision, first written in 1875 and amended in 1924, is almost as vague as the U.S. Constitution. The charges made against Governor Nixon do not appear on their face to be in violation of the impeachable actions under the Missouri constitution. Impeachment is as unusual in Missouri as it is in the U.S. presidency. Rather this move to impeach Governor Nixon appears to be a pure abuse of power by those playing this game. But it shows how conservative political foolishness appears to be contagious, and it is spreading from the federal to state governments.
Conservatives Are Damaging a Vital Tool of Democratic Government
Impeachment is the big cannon of the legislative process, a unique tool the founders incorporated into our Constitution to deal with a special problem. The federal Constitution is the model for most states. Everywhere impeachment is a power that is used only in rare circumstances. Michael Gerhardt, a leading scholar on the federal impeachment process, explains that impeachment is a “political process designed to investigate, expose, and remedy political crimes committed by a special class of politicians subject to unique political punishment.” But it is not a political crime to have a different point of view.
Gerhardt points out that Alexis de Tocqueville, when writing in his Democracy in America (1835 and 1840), thought impeachment might be a frequently used device since the only punishment was removal and ban from office. That, however, has not been our history. Impeachment is an extraordinary undertaking that conservatives now seek to make ordinary.
The founding generations, who developed the precedents to make our system work, realized that to overuse this device would change the nature of our system. If it were a frequently used process it could quickly evolve into a bastardized parliamentary process where a president (or at the state level, a governor) was simply impeached on a vote of no confidence. Removing a general elected official from office simply because a coalition of locally elected legislators did not like the chief executive’s politics, would, of course, defeat the will of the broader electorate. It’s ironic that the conservative political activists who are calling for impeaching executives they do not like are the most vocal in claiming our government must operate exactly per the letter of our constitution(s). In doing so they are weakening the separation of powers concept of our system, as they try to make impeachment something of a standard procedure.
Partisans promoting and pushing impeachment as a political solution to being out of power seem to forget that what comes around goes around. These people are not conservatives, who by definition seek to protect the system; rather they are radicals who are gaming our constitutional system. Unfortunately, their current impeachment insanity could have serious consequences and cause far more problems that these “rodeo clowns” seem to understand.