He's trapped: The real reason this lawmaker is still talking impeachment

Rep. Blake Farenthold knows President Obama is here to stay. But a toxic mix of politics and history has him stuck

By Jim Newell

Published August 13, 2013 12:31PM (EDT)

U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold poses for a photograph in Corpus Christi, Texas.    (AP)
U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold poses for a photograph in Corpus Christi, Texas. (AP)

Congressman Blake Farenthold of Texas, a sophomore Republican, got caught saying all sorts of comical things at a good old-fashioned August town hall ragefest this past weekend, thanks to the recording savvy of friendly neighborhood YouTube user "oildance." We've got impeachment talk, birther talk and ... yeah, those are pretty much the two things that we have.

The video is now private, as "oildance" now realizes that this video doesn't necessarily make his beloved Farenthold look like an A-one American politician. Maybe it's the poor lighting.

With regards to the president's birth certificate (or lack thereof), Farenthold, ever the well-grounded realist, said that the window of opportunity for proving that President Obama's entire life was a con had passed, sadly: “I think, unfortunately, the horse is already out of the barn on this, on the whole birth certificate issue ... the original Congress when his eligibility came up should have looked into it and they didn’t. I’m not sure how we fix it.”

A question, and answer, that offer a smooth glide into that next topic he hears about all the time -- why President Obama hasn't been impeached yet: "You tie into a question I get a lot: ‘If everyone’s so unhappy with what the president’s done, why don’t you impeach him?’ I’ll give you a real frank answer about that: If we were to impeach the president tomorrow, you could probably get the votes in the House of Representatives to do it. But it would go to the Senate and he wouldn’t be convicted.”

It's easy to run with the standard headlines here for Farenthold: "CRAZY CONGRESSMAN A MAD BIRTHER, LOVES WILD-EYED IMPEACHMENT BECAUSE HE IS INSANE." He's not shooting down birther speculation here, no, and he's also not pushing back on his constituents as to what precise grounds for impeachment they should pursue. But his answers, however unusually empathetic they are to the premises, eventually wind up in the right place: Neither a birth certificate investigation nor an impeachment process is going to happen, so forget about it. It's just that he uses ho-hum logistical considerations to arrive back on Planet Earth after staking out a wide orbit.

Does Farenthold personally believe there are major problems with the president's birth certificate and his legal basis for continuing to serve in the Oval Office, or does he think those are dumb questions and he's simply trying not to insult or condescend to his constituents? This is the more interesting way of breaking down any Tea Party town hall-type deal in which silly things are discussed, if we want to pick up some insights about the congressman in question.

The great thing about Farenthold popping up in a town hall controversy is that, despite his junior status in the House, we already have some solid nonfiction historical text to work with on this very topic! Robert Draper's 2012 book about the House of Representatives, "Do Not Ask What Good We Do," captures Farenthold trying to balance the fury of his more ardent constituents with the realities of governance. And it shows that Farenthold's recent flare-up can only be considered "classic Farenthold." Here's part of a scene Draper recounts of a 2011 Farenthold town hall:

The looming issue of the moment was the debt ceiling. In a GOP conference, Speaker Boehner had warned his colleagues that failing to raise the ceiling would amount to "Armageddon." That was not what Farenthold was hearing at the town hall in Brownsville the other night. The tea partiers in attendance maintained that such apocalyptic talk was baloney. Farenthold wondered if there was a way to leverage the issue into something that would please the conservative base. He wrote Boehner a letter about the debt ceiling matter just the other day.

"My fear," the letter said, "is that the debt ceiling is very possibly a hostage we're unwilling to shoot."

Boehner had not yet responded to the letter. "Politically, I would be better off voting 'no,'" he mused aloud. "But all the financial people tell me it's gonna be Armageddon. So at this point I'm officially undecided."

Gesturing to the people filing in, he continued, "The purpose of these town halls is to discuss this and get a feeling. Again"--he interrupted himself--"I'm a representative. And part of being a representative is listening to the people that elected you. But leadership is doing what you think is right. You're a leader and a representative. And not always do those coexist. But you have to do both."

He sounded more than a little miserable.

And miserable in much the same way he did just this past weekend when discussing the president's birth certificate and possible impeachment. In both cases, the balance between "leader" and "representative" that Farenthold, and other Tea Partyers, try to straddle so neatly produces the labored responses that just set both sides off into frenzies.

No, you don't have to feel sorry for Farenthold. That's not what we're trying to get at here. What it reinforces, though, is how enduring the effect of insane rhetoric used by Farenthold and others during the 2010 midterm election process to secure the House has been, and will continue to be, on the day-in, day-out motions of American politics.

Thanks to gerrymandering, these folks are most likely set in their House seats for another decade, and they'll always have to attempt to live up to their constituents' overblown expectations from those original 2010 elections. That carefree campaign trail rhetoric has caged American politics into a space where defaulting on the national debt for no reason -- just a throwaway line at best, like "Washington spends too much" -- is still considered by many to be a respectable public policy choice. And it's caged these Tea Party members of Congress, too, into the stupid promises they made during a time when they knew absolutely nothing about the process of governance. Blake Farenthold trapped himself, and he'll be paying for it for some time. And so will we all.

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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Barack Obama Blake Farenthold Impeachment Opening Shot Republican Party U.s. House Of Representatives