Politics
4:19 pm
Wed July 16, 2014

Like Clockwork, Impeachment Talk Surfaces — But Action's Unlikely

Originally published on Fri July 18, 2014 1:00 pm

When a U.S. president gets deep into a second term, there are certain things that you can count on.

Political victories are tougher to come by.

The battle scars are deeper.

Public approval falls, and the opposing party looks for new ways to gain some advantage.

And in the modern presidency, there's another second-term development that's becoming just as predictable as the list above — calls for the president to be impeached.

It happens even when there's little — or no — chance of success.

Let's start after Richard Nixon, who resigned during his second term, before his certain impeachment and conviction in the U.S. Senate could play out.

Of the two-term presidents who followed, Democrats talked of impeaching Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal; Bill Clinton was impeached by the GOP-controlled U.S. House following revelations of his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky; liberal Democrats brought articles of impeachment during George W. Bush's eighth year in office, citing the decision to go to war in Iraq, torture of detainees and other issues; and now, after nearly six years in office, there are growing calls for President Obama's impeachment by Tea Party Republicans and others, including Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin.

"The one tool they [the Congress] have are the articles of impreachment," the former Alaska governor told Fox News. "Let's get going on that."

But most of the noise for impeaching Obama is coming from outside Congress. When House Speaker John Boehner was recently asked about Palin's statement he said, curtly: "I disagree."

Instead, Boehner says he will sue the White House. That move does not satisfy those who want to press for impeachment over a list of issues ranging from how the president has implemented the health care law to objections over recess appointments to his handling of immigration to the controversy over IRS scrutiny of Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Surely Boehner has vivid memories of how the impeachment of Clinton played out in 1998 and 1999.

The GOP was seen as vindictive and overreaching — and the Clinton presidency survived.

Not only that, but Clinton saw his popularity rise, and Republicans suffered political troubles as a result.

Political scientist George Edwards of Texas A&M says today's impeachment advocates ignore the lessons of the Clinton years. He says it's all part of our deeply polarized politics.

"When one side sees the views of other side as not only wrong but illegitimate," Edwards says, "it provides grounds in their minds for an extreme measure such as impeaching the president."

And while impeachment talk might help fire up the Republican base in some places, there's also a chance it'll motivate the president's supporters who might otherwise not be as enthusiastic about voting in this election year, perhaps helping Democrats in some tight U.S. Senate races.

Further, professor Andra Gillespie of Emory University says, African-American voters are no doubt watching the talk of impeachment very closely. "There's been a lot of theorizing that blacks rally around the president in large part because of the perception that some of the opposition towards him is racially motivated," Gillespie says.

In fact, there are plenty of conservative Republicans warning about handing the Democrats an issue during the midterms. But that doesn't sway those pushing Obama's impeachment — even if they know it won't happen.

Call it rhetorical impeachment.

It's a tactic that's probably here to stay, but it's a far cry from the seriousness of the real thing.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

When a U.S. president gets deep into his second term, there are certain things that you can count on. Political victories are tougher to come by, the battle scars are deeper. Public approval falls and the opposing party looks for new ways to gain some advantage. And in the modern presidency, you can count on one more thing - calls for the president to be impeached, even when there's little or no chance of success. As NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports, the Obama White House is no different.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Talk of impeachment is once again swirling around. And while the general public is not very interested in the idea, a solid majority of Republicans say they support taking such a step. Most prominent among them are those who do not hold public office, like Rush Limbaugh.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")

RUSH LIMBAUGH: This guy needs to be impeached. We impeach Nixon for less than this kind of stuff.

GONYEA: Limbaugh points to the IRS scrutiny of tea party groups. Then there's Sarah Palin, who sees White House immigration policy as an impeachable offense. She was on Fox News calling for Congress to act.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

SARAH PALIN: The one tool they have are articles of impeachment. Let's get going on that.

GONYEA: The list of GOP grievances also includes the prisoner swap, tied to the release of U.S. soldier Bowe Berghdal and the presidents use of executive power. Still, it's not a path that Republicans actually in Congress have pushed. It's not even clear what legal case they would make and there was this curt response from Speaker of the House John Boehner recently, when asked about Palin's call for impeachment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN BOEHNER: I disagree.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What about the folks in your conference room calling for - privately talking about impeachment?

BOEHNER: I disagree.

GONYEA: Instead, Boehner offered this - filing a lawsuit against the president. Now, some recent history from late in the second term of President George W. Bush. Here's now former Congressman Dennis Kucinich on the House floor in 2008.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DENNIS KUCINICH: Resolved that President George W. Bush be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors and that the following articles of impeachment be exhibited to the United States Senate.

GONYEA: Liberal Democrats called for Bush's impeachment over the Iraq War and other issues, even though they had no chance of success. They too wanted to make a point. Of course nine years earlier, President Bill Clinton was impeached by House Republicans, after the revelations of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. But Clinton survived, saw his popularity rise and Republicans suffered a political troubles as a result. It's that history that Speaker Boehner is very aware of. But political scientist George Edwards of Texas A&M says today's impeachment advocates ignore the lessons of the Clinton years. He says it's all part of our deeply polarized politics.

GEORGE EDWARDS: And when one side sees the views of the other side as not only wrong but illegitimate, it provides grounds in their mind for an extreme measure such as impeaching the president.

GONYEA: And while impeachment talk might help fire up the Republican base in some places, there's also a chance it'll motivate the president's supporters who might otherwise not be as enthusiastic about voting in this election year, especially in some states with tight U.S. Senate races. Further, professor Andra Gillespie says African-American voters are no doubt watching the talk of impeachment very closely.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: And there's been a lot of theorizing that blacks rally around the president in large part because of this perception that some of the opposition towards him is racially motivated.

GONYEA: In fact, there are plenty of conservative Republicans warning about handing the Democrats an issue during the midterms. But that doesn't sway those pushing Obama's impeachment, even if they know it won't happen. Call it rhetorical impeachment. It's a tactic that's probably here to stay, but it's a far cry from the seriousness of the real thing. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.