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The Politics of Impeachment Distraction
It’s a cynical but probably effective move by the president.

Games of Thrones (Obama: Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

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John Fund

The simplest explanation for the bizarre spectacle of President Obama’s allies practically begging for Republicans to impeach him is that it’s a sign of political weakness, not of strength.

“Dems Fear A Debacle on Turnout,” read the front-page headline of the Capitol Hill newspaper the Hill this week. Turnout in this year’s congressional primaries hit record lows in a majority of states, with Democratic turnout lagging most. “A Pew poll out last week showed 45 percent who said they planned to vote Republican reported being more enthusiastic about voting this year than in years prior, while only 37 percent of those who supported a Democratic candidate said the same,” the Hill reported.

While the parties are roughly even in polls where voters are asked to choose between a generic Democratic or Republican candidate, that is cold comfort for those Democrats who remember they enjoyed a six-point lead in the Gallup poll on that question in early August 2010. Three months later they lost six Senate seats, control of the House, and a slew of governorships.

One way for Democrats to boost turnout is to rile up their base voters with horror stories that Republicans are planning to impeach President Obama. White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that the White House took the prospect of impeachment “very seriously.” That was followed by a fusillade of similar warnings from Democrats in Congress that Republicans plan to follow up their lawsuit against the president for exceeding his constitutional authority by going to impeachment. The one-two punch was a fundraising bonanza for the party: In one day last week the Democrats had their biggest online fundraising day of this election cycle, hauling in over $1 million from over 50,000 individuals.

Steve Israel, the New York congressman who chairs the Democratic Congressional Committee, bluntly says impeachment talk is “energizing our base.” What he didn’t say is that — Sarah Palin and a few House Republicans aside – no Republican figure of consequence is coming out for impeachment.

The same administration that came to power in 2009 on a platform of hope and change is reverting to a campaign of fear and loathing to hold on to its political relevance. Joe Klein, a liberal columnist for Time magazine, lamented that the Obama political operation’s strategy is “cynical as hell.”

“The White House is playing with fire, raising the heat in a country that is already brain-fried by partisan frenzy,” he writes. “There is something unseemly, and unprecedented, about an administration saying ‘Bring it on’ when it comes to impeachment.”

The Democratic strategy may smack of desperation to some, but it is certainly popular with the party’s base. A new CNN poll last week found that a full 49 percent of self-described liberals think Obama has got it “about right” in expanding use of his executive powers, while another 32 percent want him to go further. But a full 17 percent of liberals think he has gone too far, and 13 percent of liberals (as well as Democrats) even want him impeached.

Most Democrats in tough races this fall hope that a White House that begged for impeachment won’t ratchet up the debate over its constitutional powers even more than it has. 

Should President Obama, for example, further expand the legal status he gave children and teenagers brought into the U.S. illegally by their parents to other illegal immigrants, you can probably kiss the Senate seats of southern Democrats such as Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina good-bye this fall. Bill Clinton has been privately reminding Democrats that he lost a 1980 reelection race for governor of Arkansas after a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, lodged several thousand Cuban refugees in his home state. An angry electorate took their frustration out on their young governor, sending him into a two-year mini-retirement.

That’s why talk of sweeping executive orders being issued by President Obama before the November election are very likely a bluff. Democrats are likely leveraging the anger the GOP base has for President Obama by waving the red flag of impeachment in front of conservative voters. They no doubt remember what hapepned when Democrats would talk up a fringe Republican concern over President Obama’s birth certificate a few years ago. The ensuing discussion only turned off some voters and made conservatives appear extreme and excessively partisan to independents.

Democrats are desperate to pull off the same trick again before the midterm elections. Republicans should resist the temptation to fall for it. The best way to address President Obama’s constitutional excesses is to elect a Republican Senate, which can then amplify the oversight and investigative powers of the GOP House. The two GOP-controlled bodies could also place key budget bills on President Obama’s desk that would contain amendments limiting some of the activities of cabinet agencies, such as the Justice Department. Although President Obama would likely veto many of them, the reality of the give-and-take of governing would make it likely he’d have to accept some of them.

But, of course, Republicans have to take the Senate first.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for some .



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