Who’s talking about impeachment? Barack Obama
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
July 16, 2014 05:03 AM EDT
President Barack Obama listened to immigration activists run through a long wish list of executive actions – then added a request of his own.
“You’re not going to get me impeached, are you?” Obama said, according to people in a private White House meeting late last month. “Because there’s lots of other things I want to do besides immigration.”
The president was joking … mostly. Obama said he was frustrated that Republicans wouldn’t talk about passing an immigration bill but were openly toying with an impeachment vote over the notion that he would use his executive powers to circumvent Congress.
The issue came up enough in the meeting, one person in the room said, that it caused some anxiety among immigration reform advocates that Obama could use the threat of impeachment as a rationale against going too big or too fast on executive actions.
Impeachment is one of the rare things that nearly everyone in Washington can agree on: it’s a radical idea, and there’s no way it’s happening. But in a White House that’s seen enough ideas move from the fringe to the mainstream they are, with a level of disbelief, finding themselves talking about the topic more and more.
This time last year, after all, few believed the Republicans would actually shut down the government over Obamacare.
White House aides haven’t called in the lawyers yet or had a formal strategy session. But it’s coming up in conversations inside the West Wing, and there’s even an argument from Democratic allies who think that impeachment — or, at the very least, more talk about it — could be great for Democrats politically and even give the White House the kind of focus it’s been lacking of late.
Obama’s been paying attention, too. “You hear some of them — ‘Sue him,’ ‘Impeach him,’” he said, laughing along with the crowd at a speech in Austin, Texas, last week. “Really? Really? For what? You’re going to sue me for doing my job? Okay.”
The president’s public comments came after Sarah Palin wrote a Breitbart News column that said Obama’s record of “lawlessness” running up the debt and threatening American workers, “if after all this he’s not impeachable, then no one is.”
“His unsecured border crisis is the last straw that makes the battered wife say, “no mas,’” Palin wrote.
Then there’s Iowa Republican Senate nominee Joni Ernst or Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, who added Benghazi to the list of possible offenses. And initial polls from YouGov and Rasmussen show Republicans at large favoring the idea by huge, better than two-thirds margins — all connecting to the larger GOP argument that Obama has overreached with executive actions and efforts to circumvent Congress.
For some Democrats, the idea that Republicans may overreach with impeachment talk reminds them of the lost opportunity of the government shutdown. In polls and fundraising, the party never clocked higher numbers than during the shutdown, but the Obamacare website meltdown squandered any Democratic momentum.
“It has the potential to wake up a lot of Democrats whose energy level about voting this year is low,” said Democratic consultant Joe Trippi.
Democrats have been struggling with how to get African-Americans and Latinos to turn out in force this year the way Obama did in 2008 and 2012. Impeach him over immigration reform, they say, and Republicans will do the work for them.
“The more they talk about it, the more it has a red hot effect on their base. So if you can get the temperature just right, you’re turning out all your base voters and Democrats don’t take it seriously and it’s a good year for you,” Trippi said. “If that stove gets just a little too hot and you lose control of it, you’re going to have every Democrat on the planet turning out to stop it.”
The president, aides say, isn’t embracing the political argument. He’ll joke about it in front of a friendly crowd, but he doesn’t like the idea of delegitimizing him as president and the certainty he feels that if he gets impeached, it’s only a matter of time before the next Democratic president gets impeached, too.
“Impeachment is obviously a very serious topic being bandied about in an unserious way by unserious people,” said senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer.
“We understand that some on both sides could find potential for this to be good politics,” said another senior administration official on Tuesday. “We think it’s dangerous and corrosive to trivialize something so serious as impeaching the president of the United States.
Obama allies say they also see a president, still irritated over what he saw as the politically driven and unfounded House censure of Attorney General Eric Holder, unwilling to let the same thing happen to him.
“The impeachment of President Obama would be nothing more than a tawdry political smear. Even the idea is devoid of merit. But that’s almost beside the point, since its purpose is really to feed the base and sully his historic reputation,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
White House aides also hope that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — who last week said he disagreed with Palin’s impeachment suggestion — will siphon off some of the pressure in his caucus through his lawsuit on Obamacare expected this summer.
But the White House also hasn’t stopped Democrats from talking up impeachment, or fundraising off of it.
The DCCC, which started pumping out impeachment-themed fundraising emails as soon as aides could stick the word Palin in them, raised nearly $500,000 from more than 31,000 people in the first five days after her Breitbart column, according to a committee aide. By leaning hard on the Boehner lawsuit already, they’d clocked $800,000 on June 30 for their best online day of the cycle — beating out by $100,000 their previous one-day record from last October, the day Republicans shut down the government.
“Republicans may have been trying to rile up their own base with talk of impeachment, but the result has been record-setting grass-roots support for Democrats,” said New York Rep. Steve Israel, the DCCC chairman. “The crazy thing is not the idea of impeachment, but the reality that House Republicans just might actually do it.”
Many Republicans have been trying to apply the brakes. Former Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday called the subject a “distraction” on CNN.
Curt Anderson, a Republican consultant, echoed that, calling impeachment “counterproductive.”
“Whether we like it or not, the public views impeachment as something criminal,” Anderson said. “Unless David Axelrod sent goons into Reince Priebus’s office to steal all Republicans’ data and all of Reince’s Green Bay Packers memorabilia, talking about it makes us sound goofy and unserious.”
Democratic consultant and Clinton impeachment veteran Chris Lehane said the chatter was starting to feel like a 1998-political version of “Groundhog Day,” with Republicans talking impeachment ahead of the midterm elections.
“Republicans spent an awful lot of time spiking the ball in the end zone and not realizing that they actually ran the wrong way,” Lehane said. “You know exactly how this is going to play out. It’s like Bill Murray with Thelma and Louise driving the car.”