In the months leading up to the 2014 midterm elections, more than a few Republicans talked up the idea of impeaching then-President Barack Obama for reasons they struggled to articulate. As regular readers may recall, the chatter grew loud enough that Democrats started fundraising on the issue — which proved to be a good idea when the Democratic base had a strong response.
It reached the point that GOP leaders had to start downplaying the talk — then-House Speaker John Boehner told reporters the idea was “a scam started by Democrats,” which was the opposite of the truth — not because they were sympathetic to Obama, but because they feared the effects of a Democratic backlash.
It was a straightforward calculus: The more voters on the left believed Republicans might actually try to impeach the Democratic president, the more motivated Democratic voters would be to open their wallets and show up on Election Day.
To borrow an old expression, history isn’t exactly repeating itself, but it appears to rhyme. The conservative Washington Times reported:
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy shut down Sunday talk of using impeachment as a political tool against President Biden on Sunday. The California Republican who is poised to become speaker if his party wins the House majority told Fox News Channel that immediately impeaching Mr. Biden was not on the GOP’s agenda.
The Republicans’ House leader specifically told Fox’s Maria Bartiromo, “One thing we learned that the Democrats did is they used impeachment for political reasons. We believe in the rule of law.”
To the extent that reality matters, McCarthy’s assessment was plainly false. In American history, Democrats have only pursued presidential impeachment twice — in 2019 and 2021 — and in both instances, the evidence of presidential misconduct was overwhelming. If Republicans believed in “the rule of law,” members such as McCarthy would’ve supported the process of holding Donald Trump accountable.
But putting these relevant details aside, the minority leader’s rhetoric on Sunday put him at odds with many prominent members of his conference. It was just two weeks ago, for example, when Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan — a Republican positioned to chair the House Judiciary Committee — said he wanted to see his party at least begin a conversation about impeaching the president.
“I think that’s definitely a discussion we have to have,” the Ohioan said.
Two days before McCarthy’s comments, Republican Rep. Greg Murphy of North Carolina insisted he believes Biden has committed “plenty” of “impeachable offenses.” A day later — roughly 12 hours before McCarthy’s on-air appearance — Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina declared at a rally, “We will secure our borders and finally my friends, we will impeach Joe Biden for his dereliction of duty.”
As we recently discussed, they have a fair amount of company. The first Republican senator to broach the subject of impeaching Biden was Iowa’s Joni Ernst, who raised the prospect two years ago — long before the Delaware Democrat had even secured his party’s nomination. The GOP senator said at the time that the impeachment door “has been opened” and pointed to conspiracy theories about Burisma and Ukraine.
Such chatter was far too ridiculous to be sustained, and even Ernst stopped talking about the idea. But after Biden’s inauguration, several House Republicans filed articles of impeachment against the Democratic president, and a few months ago, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas added that he believes a Republican-led House would likely consider impeaching Biden on “multiple grounds.”
Like Boehner eight years ago, McCarthy apparently doesn’t see much of an upside to such talk, and in theory, his skepticism should put the matter to rest.
But in practice, it’s not quite that simple. McCarthy may be the top House Republican, but no one would mistake him as a commanding force of power and influence on Capitol Hill. The Californian is more likely to be led than to actually lead.
All of which leaves us with a difficult question: If House Republicans seriously try to pursue presidential impeachment, and McCarthy balks, who’ll prevail? There’s no reason to assume the decision would rest solely with the would-be Speaker.