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The politics of impeachment

Regardless of the actions of norm-busting Democrats, Republicans should return to caution and prudence

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks to reporters at the Capitol on July 27. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

The politics of impeachment

Saint Paul teaches in Galatians that you reap what you sow. Democrats are learning that lesson the hard way as impeachment talk is raging among House Republicans. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and now President Joe Biden have all been subject to calls for impeachment recently. And while the loudest voices pushing those projects have come from the reddest districts, the efforts against President Biden have taken on new salience as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has recently laid out a path to impeachment. Though it’s clear that there is a long way to go before impeachment advocates cross the thresholds McCarthy has specified to proceed against the president, his personal involvement legitimates the effort in itself.

To some extent, tossing out the possibility of impeachment is an easy way to express sheer anger over something outrageous. It can be a useful way for backbench politicians to raise their national profile (and national fundraising) and nail down their position with a segment of their base. Dennis Kucinich would never have been a household name but for his resolution to impeach George W. Bush and later his resolution to impeach fellow Democrat Barack Obama. His efforts prove that loose impeachment talk is traditionally the province of gadflies looking for cable news hits, not majority-winning political leaders.

Then along came the Democrats and Donald Trump. Even before Trump was sworn into office, five Democrat U.S. senators introduced a bill to lay the groundwork for impeaching him. Less than a month after Inauguration Day, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (not a gadfly) introduced a resolution of inquiry on Trump and Russia. Speaker Pelosi generally tried to hold down demands from within her caucus to impeach Trump, until they almost stumbled into the infamous Ukraine phone call as a basis for what they’d wanted to do all along. Of course, we ended up with two impeachments of President Trump, one for the Ukraine call, the other for January 6. I believe that had the Ukraine call transcript never leaked, House Democrats would inevitably have impeached Trump over something else. Their donor class and grassroots base were so angry that the members had to follow through somehow. 

We will not return to a serious Congress if our politics is a constant tit-for-tat of impeachments.

Liberals and Democrats love to say that Donald Trump “obliterated norms” and “destroyed democracy” itself during his four years in office. Yet the enthusiasm for impeachment now is a response to the Democrats’ decision to destroy what had been a norm against using impeachment as a political cudgel. For at least a century, serious efforts at impeachment were made only twice: Richard Nixon and Watergate (a need obviated by his resignation) and Bill Clinton and perjury. That’s it. Then Nancy Pelosi impeached Trump twice in four years when her base simply hated his guts. The norm against political impeachments was one undone by Democrats.

We don’t want and should not applaud cheap, political impeachments. It was wrong when the Democrats did it to Donald Trump, and it’s wrong for conservatives to do it, too. Conservatives should insist on focused, well-grounded, serious impeachments. If conclusive proof shows Joe Biden pocketed millions in bribes while he was vice president, then by all means, proceed. But loose talk and lesser offenses devalue a tool that should be reserved, as the Constitution says, for high crimes and misdemeanors, not garden-variety policy disagreements. 

Our country needs Congress to get back to the serious work of legislating—writing laws. Oversight of the administrative state is good and necessary, but better is congressional action to make policy in the first instance rather than turning topics over to agencies and then critiquing their management of issues after the fact. We will not return to a serious Congress if our politics is a constant tit-for-tat of impeachments. But we should also not overreact by permanently precluding a constitutional command in response to the Democrats’ norm-busting. Let the Constitution’s text, history, and tradition guide us in this as in all things. 

Daniel R. Suhr

Daniel R. Suhr is an attorney who fights for freedom in courts across America. He has worked as a senior adviser for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as a law clerk for Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and at the national headquarters of the Federalist Society. He is a member of Christ Church Mequon. He is an Eagle Scout, and he loves spending time with his wife Anna and their two sons, Will and Graham, at their home near Milwaukee.

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