Thursday, October 14, 2010

Impeachment Update

Impeachment is back in the news this week, with Jonathan Chait predicting it if Obama is in office through 2017 and Republicans control the House from 2011 through 2017.  Jonah Goldberg offered a bet, and Chait more or less accepted.

I'll trot out my own predictions, including the one that didn't pan out well.  I thought the GOP would be a bit closer to a real movement towards impeachment by now...a bit over a year ago I predicted that someone in the GOP House conference would file a formal resolution sometimes this year (as a campaign stunt; obviously it wasn't going to go anywhere this year), and for fun I predicted Michele Bachman would do so on April 15.  Wrong! 

On the larger question of whether they would actually go through with it, I'm somewhere in the middle.  I'll just quote what I said back in April of this year:

I do think that a Republican-controlled House has a very strong chance of impeaching Barack Obama -- not just filing charges, which any back-bencher can do, but actually going through with hearings, a committee vote, and a vote by the full House.  I could probably come up with a formula for how likely I think it is...something like 10% chance per year that Obama is president and the GOP controls the House (so a 60% chance if they have six years of that situation), with a larger majority yielding higher odds for impeachment. 
So far, I'd say that the odds are somewhat lower in 2011 than when I wrote that, because we're another six months down the road without anything that looks like a scandal that mainstream Republicans are jumping on as a prelude to impeachment (yes, I saw this, but I don't think it qualifies).  I think what I said back then can be thought of as an (extremely speculative) assessment of the structural situation, but that so far it doesn't appear that next year's 10% chance will pan out. Of course, it's also certainly possible that I'm just wrong, and that impeachment (without any real chance of conviction, that is) is unlikely as Jonah Goldberg seems to believe.

I will say one thing: if nothing better comes along, I'd expect a fundraising scandal coming out of the 2012 campaign (presuming, of course, that Obama wins reelection and that Republicans have a House majority in 2013).  Money in politics scandals always play will with the non-partisan press, which holds that all campaign donations are inherently suspicious at best and, with very little of a nudge, probably corrupt, or at least have the appearance of corruption, which they count as pretty much the same thing.  So if I was a GOP committee chair looking for a trumped-up scandal two years from now, I'd go with that. 


  1. I agree with you and Chait that the GOP would love to impeach the guy at some point, if only on general principles. But there's one reason why they might not that I haven't seen anyone mention: Their leadership might decide that they don't want to write off every single black vote in the country for the next 30 years. Sure, impeaching Clinton pissed off Clinton's supporters, but Clinton did not command the very intense tribal loyalty from a particular demographic that Obama does (and would even more so if he came under that kind of direct attack).

  2. With respect, speaking as one of those with "tribal loyalty", I'm betting that a lot more than just black folk are going to be majorly, majorly pissed off by an impeachment trial.

  3. "...the non-partisan press, which holds that all campaign donations are inherently suspicious at best"

    What does this say about your hypothesis or the White House Press corps? They certainly seemed to accept at face value that the chamber of commerce money was AOK and why was the President making unsubstantiated accusations.

  4. Oh, certainly, admiralmpj, a LOT of people would be pissed off, including me. Also, there's nothing wrong, and certainly nothing inherently racial, about tribal loyalty -- evangelical white Christians had it for GW Bush, for instance. But look, 96 percent of African-Americans voted for Obama. He's the first African-American president. We've already grown used to this now, but it's absolutely historic, it happened sooner than just about anyone predicted, and an impeachment (particularly after the thinly coded racial attacks of these past two years) will be seen as an attempt to undo that achievement. I'm not A-A myself, but I for one will take strong exception to any such attempt, and if A-As took even stronger exception, I could hardly blame them.

    So, the only question I'm raising is just how far gone the GOP leadership and their base really are. Are they prepared for that kind of backlash? Does the leadership have enough control in all this to resist impeachment pressure from the base? I'm betting they still do, but hey, I think they're still capable of surprising us.

  5. JC,

    Good question. I guess we'd have to see how it played out if the WH was making a sustained case of corruption. Of course, in a scandal/impeachment scenario, the House GOP would have Fox News on their we really think that the non-partisan press would be able to ignore it? (They're not even ignoring the current thing, although I'd have to look a lot more carefully than I am to see to what extent the Dems' charges are being passed along by the press).

  6. This (I believe valid) assumption that the Republicans want to impeach a Democratic president irrespective any actual wrongdoing, coupled with the Democratic approach to impeachment ("impeachment is off the table no matter what George Bush does") represents the bizarre nature of American politics. Democrats are de facto impeachable, Republicans can never be impeached. Why is that?

  7. William: A big part of it is that Democrats believe they can't be seen as catering to their activist base, while Republicans believe they can't be seen as NOT catering to theirs. I don't know why things have developed that way, though. Perhaps a scholar who studies American political parties would have some ideas about it.....

  8. And another part of it is Nixon. The GOP *desperately* want to even the score on presidential corruption, and while the Court in Starr Chamber caused all kinds of ruckus, it wasn't Watergate. The GOP still have to live with knowing that one of *their* guys got caught red-handed and so far, no-one from the other team seems to be that egregious.

    The Democrats, on the other hand, equally desperately want to be known as the reasonable ones. They already nailed one GOP president; then the GOP tried to nail one of theirs and missed. 1-0 Democrats. Impeaching Bush would have been written up across the media, not just on Fox, as revenge.


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