Why ‘impeach Obama’ is different than ‘impeach Bush’


A "Mission Accomplished" banner appears as a backdrop for President George W. Bush's speech on May 1, 2003, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, declaring the end of combat operations in Iraq. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

On Tuesday, Sarah Palin called for President Obama's impeachment. That prompted us to argue that any such momentum for the "impeach Obama" movement is a bad thing for Republicans -- especially on the eve of the 2014 election.

Naturally, some folks disagreed.

Their main argument was that Democrats have done it too. In fact, there were plenty of Democrats and anti-war activists calling for George W. Bush's impeachment as the truth about the case for war in Iraq came out. Despite this, their party won -- and won BIG -- in 2006.

The difference that time? Democratic leaders quashed the idea before it got too far.

Byron York has a good piece recalling the situation:

In the fall of '06, Democrats were headed toward a big victory in the midterm elections — the win Bush later referred to as "a thumping." Many Democrats, especially in the House, and most notably Rep. John Conyers, who stood to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, had been laying the groundwork for an attempt to impeach the president.

...

There was absolutely no doubt Conyers was preparing for impeachment. And he wasn't a back-bencher but the incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee, in which impeachment proceedings would originate. (Just for good measure, Conyers had a long inclination toward impeachment; back in 1983, he had tried to impeach Ronald Reagan for the invasion of Grenada.)

Conyer's move was met with enthusiastic applause from the activist corners of the Democratic base. Impeachment talk grew as the midterms approached. The talk got so loud that Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who hoped to become Speaker of the House, felt the need to intervene. With the election just days away, Pelosi went on "60 Minutes" and declared: "Impeachment is off the table."

"That's a pledge?" asked CBS’s Lesley Stahl.

"Well, it's a pledge in the — yes, I mean, it's a pledge," Pelosi said. "Of course it is. It is a waste of time."

The Conyers effort was no small thing. It got the support of 38 co-sponsors. But in fact, it was taken off the table well before the 2006 election. Pelosi told her conference as early as May 2006 to knock it off.

And they did. While there were certainly voices calling for impeachment, it wasn't a big theme in the 2006 election, which delivered both the House and Senate to the Democrats.

York goes on to ask whether House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) will make a similar declaration, now that it looks like the effort to impeach Obama is getting similar traction. Boehner weighed in a little Wednesday, saying simply, "I disagree" with Palin.

But we would submit that, even if Boehner were to go a step farther try and take impeachment completely off the table, it might not go as well as it did for Pelosi. Boehner is on permanently shaky ground with the tea party wing of the GOP, which isn't really apt to fall in line just because party leadership says so. And in fact, we would argue that Boehner attempting to snuff out impeachment talk too much risks something of a backlash and perhaps would embolden folks like Palin.

Certain aspects of today's Republican Party, quite simply, thrive on poking the bear. We have a hard time seeing how GOP leaders like Boehner will deal with this, apart from hoping like hell that it goes away.

Now, just to be clear, Democratic calls for Bush's impeachment in 2006 were bad politics, just as GOP calls for Obama's impeachment today are bad politics. The difference back then was that someone like Pelosi -- a San Franciscan who had credibility with the party's anti-war and liberal wings -- was able to bring it to an end pretty quickly.

The effort to impeach Obama has much more potential to grow into something bigger -- into something GOP leaders can't squash so easily. It might not get to that point, but the potential is there.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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