Sometime around Labor Day, Nancy Pelosi really began getting to me. She’s been emailing me regularly, you see. We’re friends like that. A lot of her emails were about President Obama getting impeached. And she was beginning to sound really needy. She had been emailing all summer. Stuff like: “Bad news” or “I’m pleading (again).”
It’s was on Labor Day weekend when she emailed me, and the subject line read “We’ve got nothing left Victoria,” that I really started to worry she had lost her mind.
All this impeachment talk was beginning to give me flashbacks to 1999 when I found myself in the Senate gallery as the roll call vote whether to impeach President Clinton took place. I felt a chill and weight of history during the somber proceeding. The intensity and gravity of the occasion was palpable and enlivened only by Senator Arlen Specter’s detour into Scottish law as justification for his “not proven” verdict.
It would be easy to dismiss this summer’s Obama impeachment folderol as neatly confirming Karl Marx’s adage: history repeats itself, first as tragedy and second as farce. Yet I think something more serious may be going on.
But first: what a marvelous circus it has been. For those unfamiliar with the Obama impeachment shambles, a quick recap. Earlier this year, many Republican House members were for impeachment. Then they were against it. Meanwhile, the White House and House Democrats were against it, except when they were for it as a fundraising mechanism. Meanwhile the DC chattering classes were having a field day.
As the summer impeachment heat burns off, what are we left with? The fading memories of a slow news month with journalists filling space by any means necessary? Or is there a chance that impeachment is about to join government shutdowns and debt defaults in the legislative branch dysfunction tool kit?
It’s easy to dismiss the current Republican effort as frivolous. Then, last year, no one really thought the Republicans again would shut down the government. Like they did with Clinton. Right before they impeached him.
In the years since the Clinton Impeachment, the House and Senate’s proficiency at using commonsense governance tools seem to have dwindled to zero. Witness the incredible havering this week on the Hill about whether Congress has a role to play in how this nation addresses the Islamic State threat in Syria and Iraq. Instead, they have turned to increasingly aggressive and extreme actions: excessive filibusters, fruitless lawsuits, endless investigative committees, government shutdowns, debt defaults, hissy fits. Impeachment fits seamlessly onto that list.
Two factors may make impeachment an increasingly favored plaything for legislators: the desensitized and increasingly shrill environment of contemporary American politics and the emerging left-right marriage in frustration with the imperial presidency.
This summer’s impeachment brouhaha featured a sizeable serving of bluster and bravado with politicians playing to their core constituencies. One lawmaker went so far as to say that Obama “absolutely wants to be impeached” as a political ploy. Another bragged that the House had enough votes to pass articles of impeachment. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer goaded the Republican caucus by calling potential Administration immigration decisions “impeachment bait.”
Meanwhile, the President himself responded to the mini-tempest with further provocation: “bring it on,” he said. And the Democratic House leadership, including my faithful correspondent Nancy Pelosi, went into full Chicken Little mode over it in a cynical effort to raise campaign contributions.
Previous debt default and government shutdown debates have shared the same insouciant tone though there were always some who warned against both ploys. However, a sense of gravity or thoughtfulness about tossing impeachment around as a political football was missing from the coarse, calloused back and forth this summer.
And as the Obama Administration enters its last two years, it enters an impeachment danger zone: Clinton was impeached during this period and the Bush impeachment movement gained real momentum during his lame duck period.
The willingness to use impeachment as a political ploy and rallying cry is coupled with a growing and legitimate right-left coalescence around the lack of tools to curb an imperial presidency. Republican and Democratic thinkers are frustrated by different aspects of the imperial presidency—the former by Obamacare and immigration, the national security state for the latter. They share a growing sense that impeachment is the only answer and give the effort a certain intellectual legitimacy.
The 40th Anniversary of the Nixon resignation this summer, brought a number of Democratic thinkers out of the woodwork. In The Nation, former congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman warned “we need to rediscover the meaning of presidential accountability” while celebrating that impeachment worked 40 years ago. The Nation columnist Eric Alterman made a similar point when he favorably quoted John Dean: “The only remedy is impeachment.”
This summer’s impeachment drama was the epitome of political kabuki theater. All the actors wore layer upon layer of makeup. Their movements were highly stylized. An air of unreality pervaded. I hope it stays that way but fear that the actors might be wiping off their makeup and showing their true faces.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
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