Commentary Magazine


Palin, Impeachment, and Unserious Politics

Is impeachment the only remedy for President Obama’s unconstitutional power grabs? Congress doesn’t seem likely to be able to restrain his attempt to rule by executive order by either legislation or lawsuits. But those, like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who advocate this course of action are saying more about themselves than they are about Obama’s misbehavior.

Palin makes the argument for impeachment in a article in which she rightly set forth the president’s failures to enforce the laws he doesn’t like (such as those that govern U.S. immigration policy) and his predilection for making up new laws that allow him do as he pleases as he goes along. This lawlessness is deplorable, but I would assert that it also reflects a general distaste for a system of checks and balances and limited powers embedded in the Constitution that seems to inform all liberal thought these days. The president’s defeats at the Supreme Court on recess appointments (where even his appointees ruled against him) and religious freedom all reflect liberal impatience with the Constitution when it interferes with Obama’s policy ambitions.

But as frustrating as Obama’s defiant “so sue me” attitude may be, any talk of impeachment is an illustration of how some on the right have become divorced from political reality. By lending what’s left of her star power to an effort that is not only an obvious non-starter but also a proposition that is bound to hurt Republicans more than it could possibly help them, Palin is demonstrating how profoundly unserious her brand of politics has become.

Advocates of impeachment can say, as they do in every administration (leftists sang the same tune about George W. Bush), that impeachment is the recourse the founders gave Congress to restrain a president that had violated the law. But in the 225 years since the first president took the oath of office, it is a measure that has always rightly been considered not merely a last resort but a tactic that is associated with extremists who have abandoned the political process. Obama is, after all, not the first president to seek to expand the power of the executive at the expense of the Congress or even the Constitution. Even when a president has been caught violating the law in one manner or the other, the consensus has always been that the “high crimes and misdemeanors” standard set forth in the Constitution cannot be used to settle what are essentially political disputes about policy and turf.

Nor, as Republicans learned in 1998 when they impeached Bill Clinton for committing perjury during the course of investigations of his pattern of sexual harassment of women, does the public care for attempts to undo by a hybrid legislative-judicial process the decision of the voters at the ballot box. Like efforts to demonstrate this president’s alleged ineligibility for his office, talk of impeachment is the last resort of people who can’t get their way by the normal political process.

To note this fact is not to defend Obama or to refute the arguments that Palin and others, such as myself, have made about the president’s lamentable distaste for the Constitution. But conservatives who embrace impeachment must come to terms with the fact that in doing so they are essentially branding themselves as having divorced themselves from the reality of government. Impeachment resolutions are not efforts to pressure the president to obey the law or to adopt more sensible policies. They are a declaration of war by a side that knows it is losing and can’t win by any other means. It is a sign of weakness and desperation.

In that sense, impeachment is very much of a piece with the conservative effort to force a government shutdown last year. Doing so did nothing to stop ObamaCare or to advance the critique of the Obama presidency. Indeed, it only served to distract Americans from the disastrous rollout of the misnamed Affordable Care Act and did more to undermine the Republican case against Obama and his law than anything their opponents ever said. Though the GOP had right on its side in that debate, their decision to essentially hold the government hostage to their demands played right into Democratic hands. It was only once they abandoned that foolish tactic that conservatives began to gain ground in the polls and give their party a chance to win the 2014 midterms.

The shutdown reflected a lack of faith in the political process on the part of conservatives who seemed to think themselves doomed to perpetual defeat. The same can be said of impeachment.

The point isn’t just that it is politically impossible, though it is that and will be even if the Republicans take back the Senate next year since most in the GOP caucuses understand an impeachment vote would help the Democrats more than the shutdown. It’s Palin’s threat to urge conservatives to “vehemently oppose any politician on the left or right who would hesitate in voting for articles of impeachment” that is the real problem.

Palin remains a genuine political talent and can, when she sticks to topics that she knows something about, be an effective advocate. But her brittle and often graceless approach to political discourse has cost her mainstream appeal and made her a polarizing figure with little hope of appealing to anyone outside her existing circle of admirers. Palin still has a following and though she knows it isn’t anywhere near big enough to justify her risking her reputation by running for national office, it is sufficient to have a potent influence in some GOP primaries. If she attempts to make support for impeachment a litmus test for Republican candidates she will not only be hurting her party but marginalizing herself. Her decision to go down this path is just one more sign that she has abandoned serious politics in favor of something that can only further diminish what’s left of her celebrity quotient.

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