"I think those are serious things, but we're in serious times," said Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn during a town hall in his home state. "And I don't have the legal background to know if that rises to 'high crimes and misdemeanors,' but I think you're getting perilously close."The remark came after an attendee called the Obama administration "lawless" and asked, "who is responsible for enforcing [Obama's] constitutional responsibilities?"
Coburn apparently has given this a fair amount of thought, telling constituents, "What you have to do is you have to establish the criteria that would qualify for proceedings against the president, and that's called impeachment. That's not something you take lightly, and you have to use a historical precedent of what that means." He added that he believes "there's some intended violation of the law in this administration."
The senator went on to say that he and the president became "personal friends" during their tenure on Capitol Hill, "but that does not mean that I agree in any way with what he's doing or how he's doing it.... And if it continues, I think we're going to have another constitutional crisis in terms of the presidency."
And what, pray tell, has the president done that Coburn perceives as possible "high crimes"? In keeping with the recent trend, the Oklahoma Republican never got around to explaining what the grounds for impeachment would be. Coburn mentioned that he'd heard a rumor about the Department of Homeland Security choosing to "ignore" background checks for immigrants, but he did not elaborate.
So let's pause for a moment to take stock of where things stand when it comes to Impeachment Madness.
First, the number of right-wing lawmakers talking up this ridiculous idea in public continues to grow. The group now includes a handful of U.S. Senators -- Sens. Coburn, Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) -- and plenty of U.S. House members -- Reps. Bentivolio, Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). There may be others, but these are the examples that crossed my radar recently.
Second, while Republicans have traditionally relied on trumped-up pretenses to justify this unhinged rhetoric, lately GOP lawmakers have talked up impeachment for no particular reason. Maybe the party believes the grounds for impeachment are so obvious that they don't need to elaborate; maybe the party no longer cares whether they have a coherent rationale or not.
Third, in nearly every instance I'm aware of, the impeachment comments came in response to questions from far-right activists. Politicians get questions from nutty voters all the time, and usually become adept at handling them, but it's quite possible that today's Republican lawmakers are so afraid of disappointing extremists in the GOP base, they feel the need to treat presidential impeachment as a serious issue.
And finally, for every Beltway pundit who proclaims with a tear in their eye, "Washington would be more effective if Obama showed leadership by reaching out to Republicans, schmoozing them, and offering to work cooperatively with his critics," I hope they're paying very close attention to current events. It is, as a practical matter, awfully difficult for a president to work constructively with radicalized lawmakers who refuse to compromise and cherish the idea of impeachment without cause.
Just so we're clear, I don't really expect Republicans to pursue this in a serious way, and my coverage on the issue is intended more as a "look how silly this is" than a "look at this threat to our constitutional system of government." If for no other reason, GOP lawmakers wouldn't try impeaching the president because they'd risk motivating the Democratic base to show up in the 2014 midterms.
That said, the recent talk about impeachment is nevertheless unnerving.