Why impeachment talk won’t stop: GOP won’t shut up about it

Pundits say the White House stokes rumors to energize its base. But they don’t have to. Republicans keep talking

Published July 28, 2014 3:17PM (EDT)

  (AP/Carolyn Kaster/J. Scott Applewhite/Photo collage by Salon)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster/J. Scott Applewhite/Photo collage by Salon)

Apparently House Majority Whip Steve Scalise didn’t get the memo: Everyone now knows that President Obama is the man behind the talk of his own impeachment, as a way to turn out his base in 2014 and 2016. It’s not coming from influential Republicans. House Speaker John Boehner is pushing a lawsuit instead.

AP’s Julie Pace laid out the prevailing MSM narrative as CNN’s “Inside Politics” looked ahead at the week in politics Sunday. “Look for Democrats and the White House to start talking about the possibility of impeachment. If they think [John Boehner’s] lawsuit is good politics for them, they think the impeachment narrative is even better.”

So then why did Scalise, the number three leader in the House, refuse to echo Boehner and come out against impeachment, on Fox News Sunday? Three times Chris Wallace gave him a chance to sound like his boss. Three times Scalise demurred. The last time Wallace pushed for a direct answer, Scalise just changed the subject: “The White House will do anything they can to change the topic away from the president’s failed agenda.”

To be clear, Scalise obviously got the GOP leadership memo that said "Blame impeachment talk on Obama!" But he missed the part that said "House leaders must join the Speaker and come out against impeachment." Or maybe that part of the memo never got written.

Even though the wise folks of the MSM insist impeachment talk is mainly coming from Democrats, Republicans won’t play along. It’s not just Scalise: Just this weekend Rep. Steve King insisted he’d push impeachment if Obama used executive orders to deal with the border crisis. “From my standpoint, if the president [enacts more executive actions], we need to bring impeachment hearings immediately before the House of Representatives,” King told Breitbart executives.

Alaska GOP senate candidate Joe Miller went even further this week. "Sarah Palin is right; it’s time to impeach this President for dereliction of duty, selectively enforcing the law, and usurping powers that the Constitution does not authorize," Mark Begich’s possible opponent said in a press release. "He is willfully undermining the rule of law and creating chaos."

Now, it’s absolutely true that the White House thinks talk of impeachment helps Democrats politically, because it could energize a base that disproportionately stays home during midterm elections.  When White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer told reporters, "I think Speaker Boehner, by going down the path of this lawsuit, has opened the door to impeachment sometime in the future," both Republicans and the pundit class jumped on him with both feet.

“It is telling, and sad, that a senior White House official is focused on political games, rather than helping these kids and securing the border," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.  The National Journal’s James Oliphant called it “a bit of election-year gamesmanship.”

But stoking fear of impeachment is not the same as inventing it out of whole cloth. Several recent polls show that a majority of Republican voters want the president impeached. Republican flamethrowers Sarah Palin and Mark Levin and Allen West all back it. So do House GOP members Michele Bachmann, Blake Farenthold, Steve Stockman, Steve King, Lou Barletta, Kerry Bentivolio, Bill Flores and others. (World Net Daily has a helpful rundown here.)

Yes, the White House knows that impeachment, as well as the impeachment lite of the lawsuit, enrages the base. But they also know Republicans aren't beyond doing it. It’s true John Boehner says he opposes it. But Boehner also said he opposed the 2011 debt ceiling hostage taking and the 2013 government shutdown.

Part of me wishes the White House had gotten smarter five years ago, about the lengths to which the GOP would go to thwart this president. Except now we can see why they had to keep acting like they believed they’d have GOP cooperation on the Affordable Care Act in 2009, or on a debt-ceiling Grand Bargain in 2011. The MSM would have accused them of cynicism and worse if they'd predicted the truth up front – that the GOP would never cooperate – and acted accordingly.

Had Obama said to Sen. Max Baucus in mid-2009, “Enough footsie with Chuck Grassley, you'll never get his vote for the ACA” (or that of his GOP Gang of Six partners Mike Enzi and Olympia Snowe), he'd have been right – but he’d have lost all the pundits on the Sunday shows, who would have then blamed partisanship solely on the president. (They do now anyway, but still.)

If he'd said in 2011, “No John Boehner, I won’t negotiate on a debt ceiling hike, because you can’t deliver the votes for a Grand Bargain,” again, he’d have been right, but MSM pundits would have insisted the fault was entirely Obama’s (instead of assaigning a sliver of fault to Republicans as they do today.)

The fact is, the White House isn't making up the impeachment threat. if the GOP does well in the 2014 midterms, it will embolden the right. If the House GOP gains seats, and/or if Republicans take back the Senate, there will almost certainly be a new and strong push for impeachment. They’ll never have the 67 Senate votes they need to convict and oust the president, but that doesn’t matter: Just a majority vote to impeach him puts an asterisk beside his name, and that’s what they’ve wanted all along.

And that’s why Steve Scalise wouldn’t tell Fox he won’t support impeachment.

By Joan Walsh