Mint the coin, even if Republicans impeach

If Obama thinks a platinum coin is the best way out of the debt ceiling crisis, he should do it, impeachment or not

By Jonathan Bernstein
January 12, 2013 7:00PM (UTC)
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(AP/Charles Dharapak)

Surely there are plenty of foolish things that have been said in the discussion of the debt limit, a possible default by the United States government, and the idea of minting a platinum coin to prevent it. But it doesn’t get much more foolish than this argument against the coin by Eric Posner:

Another more pressing worry for the Obama administration: impeachment. With a majority in the House, Republicans could easily start impeachment proceedings. And while conviction in the Senate is virtually impossible, as Democrats would not join to create the two-thirds majority needed, merely launching the impeachment process would be politically devastating for President Obama, as it was for President Clinton.

It’s worth paying some attention to this, because it’s unlikely to be an isolated concern. Should President Obama somehow manage to skate through the upcoming debt limit confrontation without articles of impeachment drawn up, we can fully expect impeachment to hover over future fights between the Republican House and the Democrat in the Oval Office.


That’s why it’s actually very important for Obama to reject this kind of advice, in which Posner suggests that “President Obama shouldn’t take even a low risk of impeachment.”

To begin with: impeachment was not “politically devastating” in any way for Bill Clinton. Now, it’s always difficult to tie any particular event to approval ratings, but the evidence is about as clear on this one as possible. The Lewinsky story broke in January 1998, and immediately pushed Clinton’s approval ratings … up. He had basically spent the first year of his second term either at or a bit under 60 percent approval; the scandal boosted him about 10 points right away, and he retained much of that for the entire year, spiking again when the House actually went ahead and impeached him.

The electoral results, too, were excellent for Clinton, as Democrats defied history and actually picked up House seats (and broke even in the Senate) during a second-term midterm election. As a result, Speaker Newt Gingrich resigned and left Congress. That’s hardly a politically devastating result!


Again: It’s hard to draw direct lines between events and approval ratings. But in this case, one might want to distinguish between Clinton’s behavior, which presumably would not help his approval, and the political situation surrounding this behavior. That is, had the affair come to light but without either the independent counsel’s campaign against the president or Congress’s choice to move to impeachment, it’s certainly possible that Clinton would have been hurt. Either way, it’s very hard to argue that impeachment itself hurt Clinton politically at all, and much easier to believe it helped him considerably.

Did impeachment hurt the Democrats in 2000? It’s unlikely. It is true that Al Gore probably underperformed the economic and other fundamentals in 2000. It’s also possible that Clinton’s scandalous behavior might have hurt Gore in some states. But impeachment, per se, probably didn’t; it’s unlikely that anyone who otherwise found Clinton’s behavior acceptable turned against the Democrats because the House had attempted to remove him from office.

Now, take the “mint the coin” question. Suppose that Barack Obama chose to use the coin to prevent economic catastrophe. Would it be popular among the population at large? I’d say that’s very hard to predict. But even if it was, the Clinton example suggests that impeachment over it would likely help, not harm, the president.


But that’s only the beginning. Because any impeachment of Barack Obama, on any pretext, will surely be seen by everyone (including the press) in the context of the earlier Bill Clinton experience – as a strictly partisan and irresponsible maneuver.

Indeed, it’s very possible that John Boehner realizes exactly that situation. Certainly, while there’s been the occasional crazy suggestion from some of the fringe members of the House, no one has moved forward with any impeachment resolution so far during Barack Obama’s presidency. (Some of the more boisterous precincts of the Republican partisan press haven’t been nearly so restrained.)


There’s at least some possibility that Posner is correct and that the House could move to impeach Obama if he used a platinum coin to escape a debt limit confrontation. The thing is – they also might move to impeach him for Benghazi. Or for almost anything else you can think of.

And that’s why Obama should utterly ignore the prospect of impeachment as he chooses what to do, whether on the debt limit or anything else. Oh, he should definitely consider all the normal political (and legal) calculations. But impeachment? The Lewinsky Republicans conclusively proved that a partisan impeachment need not hurt a president – and made a partisan impeachment even less of a good idea for this Republican House of Representatives.

The bottom line: If Obama otherwise thinks that “mint the coin” is his best option, he should do it. Even if he is certain that it would get him impeached. After all, his Gallup approval rating is only in the mid-50s right now; impeachment over the debt limit is an excellent chance to run it up to 70 percent.

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

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