As new revelations underscore the administration’s epic incompetence in its handling of the Benghazi disaster and IRS abuses, some Republican voices in the House and Senate, along with pundits of every persuasion, have begun to speculate about “the I word” — impeachment. Even MSNBC, the most unapologetically progressive of all television news networks, has suggested that the president could face a serious effort to remove him from office.
As much as this prospect might excite the right and inspire the faithful with a renewed sense of purpose and unity, conservatives should steer clear of any push for impeachment as a catastrophic miscalculation for their cause. Regardless of damning evidence of dissembling and malfeasance that congressional committees could bring to light, there is no chance of driving the president from office, meaning that efforts to do so will damage the GOP far more consequentially than the administration.
First, a reality check: The Republicans currently control only 45 seats in the U.S. Senate and would therefore need to persuade 22 members of the Democratic caucus to vote to oust a president of their own party in order reach the two-thirds majority the Constitution requires. The possibility of winning these votes is, simply, non-existent. The last time Republicans forced a Senate vote to convict a president of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” they didn’t win a single Democrat to their cause.
In fact, all three of the serious impeachment drives (against Andrew Johnson in 1868,Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1998-99) occurred when the president’s opponents controlled both houses of Congress by hefty margins. Nixon resigned before the House or Senate got the chance to cast final votes on the charges against him, but his Republican Party controlled 11 fewer Senate seats than Obama’s Democrats today, making the prospect of removal vastly more plausible.
Given the virtual impossibility of winning an impeachment fight, any Republican efforts would be suicidal. A failed attempt at removing the president would only confirm the negative image of the GOP as hyperpartisan radicals more interested in scoring political points than working to address the nation’s problems. In the Clinton era, the failed impeachment crusade boosted the incumbent’s popularity while undermining support for Republicans and their leader, Newt Gingrich.
A Republican attempt at terminating the Obama presidency would also enable Hillary Clinton to reprise her role as the loyal, long-suffering help-mate working to protect a political partner unjustly persecuted by “a vast right-wing conspiracy.” Instead of concentrating their attention on Obama’s role in the Benghazi debacle, Republicans should focus on the more questionable role of then-Secretary of State Clinton — despite the fact that she has already resigned her office and placed herself beyond the reach of impeachment. Obama can never run for the White House again, but Hillary Clinton can — unless she’s appropriately discredited for her role in these bloody events.
In addition to letting Clinton off the hook by aiming squarely at her boss, any impeachment drive could also boost the stock of another potential Democratic candidate, Vice President Biden. Concerted moves to push Obama from office could only enhance the stature of his constitutionally designated successor, whether those efforts succeeded or not. If Biden plays the role of president-in-waiting during an impeachment crisis, he looks more plausible in 2016.
And with no chance of success, even conjecture about impeachment ultimately serves to boost Obama. A series of scandals that looks increasingly dire — on Benghazi, the IRS, improperly seized phone records from reporters and assorted prevarications with the press and public — would still allow Obama a sense of victory and exoneration when he inevitably survives. Serious talk of impeachment makes any outcome less than that look like vindication.
Instead of pursuing an outgoing chief executive, Republicans should pursue the truth, no matter what. A new House select committee should uncover definitive conclusions to unanswered questions on Benghazi and the IRS. Those answers could weaken the administration even if they don’t destroy it, and facilitate cooperation from a humbled White House on a conservative, reformist agenda that most Americans could embrace.
If new information exposes administration participation in especially egregious lies, there’s always the chance for a resolution of censure — a formal reprimand voted by Congress (and applied to only one prior president, Andrew Jackson) that would allow nervous Democrats to distance themselves from their leader without actually removing him from power. The old saying sagely declares, “If you strike the king, you must kill him.” Even without a king, that’s good advice for re-energized Republicans who can hardly afford reinforcement of their reputation as flailing failures.
A version of this column appeared first in USA TODAY.