These are the dog days of summer, with the Sunbelt scorched and the temperatures in Washington hovering at a humid 90 degrees. But when Congress returns from its Fourth of July recess next week, House Republicans will mostly be glad to escape the heat from their most loyal supporters. GOP voters are bored with a Republican presidential-nomination fight that has less drama than a mascot race at the ballpark, and they are clamoring for their legislators to inflict pain on the Biden administration.
House Republicans have a single solution to both problems, one that will inject some life into this lethargic season while also satisfying the right wing’s bloodlust: impeachment.
The Republicans were only getting started last month when Marjorie Taylor Greene called Lauren Boebert “a little bitch” on the House floor in a dispute over whose effort to impeach Joe Biden should take priority. But now the Republicans appear to have a dizzying array of targets in addition to the president, as The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday. And rather than quaking in terror, Democrats should be shouting, “Bring it on.” Impeachment fever may be emotionally satisfying for the Republicans, but the frenzy comes with political costs for the GOP in 2024 and beyond.
There is a move to impeach Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security, over border security. Attorney General Merrick Garland is supposedly vulnerable because of Republican rage over an unverified IRS whistleblower’s claims of possible meddling in the Hunter Biden case. In May, the hyperactive Greene introduced an impeachment resolution against FBI Director Christopher Wray because, as she claimed, “Director Wray has turned the FBI into Joe Biden and Merrick Garland’s personal police force.” And probably any day now, some House Republican will go after Colonel Mustard for that business in the Conservatory with the lead pipe.
It is easy to understand the primary politics motivating the Republican zealots. Kevin McCarthy has been House speaker for more than six months without Donald Trump being restored to his rightful place scarfing down hamburgers and watching Newsmax at the White House. The liberty-loving tourists who made a patriotic pilgrimage to the Capitol on January 6 are still in prison while Hunter Biden walks free. Unless the House Republicans impeach someone fast, they risk 2024 primary challengers accusing them of becoming lackeys of the Deep State.
But in general election terms, impeachment is a boon for the Democrats, which is why McCarthy is desperately trying to slow-walk these simpleminded drives for vengeance.
For starters, the Republicans lack a rationale for impeachment that can be grasped by anyone whose existence does not revolve around Hunter Biden’s laptop. Each time Trump was impeached, it was easy to explain why in a single sentence. First, Trump tried to shake down Ukraine for dirt on Hunter Biden. Then Trump triggered the January 6 insurrection designed to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Even Bill Clinton’s overwrought 1998 impeachment could be explained at bumper-sticker length: The president lied under oath.
Impeaching Biden or a Cabinet official on flimsy grounds risks antagonizing swing voters needed by McCarthy to hold the House in 2024. Normally, a House speaker can give imperiled incumbents the opportunity to vote their districts on divisive matters. But McCarthy currently has only four votes to spare—and that GOP working majority can easily be reduced by ill health. So if McCarthy cracks the whip, Republicans in challenging districts (such as Tom Kean Jr. in northern New Jersey, David Schweikert in the Phoenix suburbs, and Anthony D’Esposito on Long Island) will have to jump on the impeachment bandwagon. Needless to say, it will be hard to run for reelection as a purported moderate after voting to impeach the president or the attorney general without being able to clearly explain why.
Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff offers a prime example that there is no stigma in being the victim of a political persecution. Censured by the House last month on a party-line vote for, in effect, being mean to Trump, Schiff just raised a record-breaking $8.1 million in the second quarter for his California Senate race.
Since taking over the House in January, the Republicans have provided scant evidence that they know how to run a compelling congressional hearing. So it strains credulity that the so-called evidentiary hearings leading up to a House vote on impeachment of Biden or a Cabinet member would sway anyone who doesn’t already live in the right-wing fever stamps. When Elise Stefanik, who is supposed to be the telegenic voice of the House Republican leadership, routinely talks of “the Biden crime family,” you get a sense of how over-the-top GOP rhetoric would be during an impeachment hearing (especially one led by Jim Jordan, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who is known for intemperate antics and a disdain for suit jackets).
A Senate impeachment trial would provide the Republicans with even narrower room for persuasion, since they would never come close to a two-thirds majority for removal required by the Constitution. Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senate majority would dictate the schedule and even the rules. Senate impeachment trials have a rich tradition: Chief Justice William Rehnquist even wore a gold-striped judicial robe that looked like a prop from Gilbert and Sullivan to preside over the Clinton trial. But these precedents are malleable, especially since Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has little interest in preordained defeats devoid of political benefit. In fact, NYU law professor Bob Bauer—who is very close to Biden and whose wife, Anita Dunn, is a senior White House adviser—argued in a 2019 paper that the Senate may not be constitutionally obliged to hold an impeachment trial.
For those Senate Republicans uncomfortable with the GOP’s MAGA momentum, an impeachment trial on trumped-up charges would be political agony. A vote of “not guilty” would only arouse right-wing ire, while endorsing the flimsy impeachment case brought by House Republicans would be another profile in cowardice. For Ted Cruz, about the only potentially vulnerable Senate Republican on the 2024 ballot, a vote to convict would probably cost him moderate votes in the Dallas and Houston suburbs.
If House Republicans were serious people, perhaps a case could be made to them about not normalizing the extreme constitutional remedy of impeachment. But McCarthy’s minions only believe in conspiracy theories, temper tantrums, and the greatness of their defrocked president. So if the Republicans want to play impeachment, the Democrats have a ready response: “Peachy.”