From the Center
Many years from now, when our grandchildren tune in to watch ChatGBT Jeopardy hosted by an AI simulation of Alex Trebeck, imagine them seeing a contestant select the $400 box under the “US Presidents” category. The clue would be “George W. Bush and Barack Obama”.
The correct question will be, “Who are the last two presidents not to be impeached?”
As congressional Republicans move toward a formal impeachment of Joe Biden, we should note that exactly one American president faced such proceedings for the first 221 years of our nation’s history. If the House GOP escalates their current impeachment inquiry into full-fledged charges against Biden, it will be the third presidential impeachment in the last four years.
When Congress held impeachment hearings against Richard Nixon in the aftermath of Watergate, the television networks preempted their scheduled programming to cover the proceedings live, and the country was riveted for several months until Nixon ultimately resigned from office. The impeachments of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were intensely polarizing affairs and fueled heated and passionate political debate across the country.
But we are now entering into an era in which impeachment is much more commonplace. It’s not hard to envision a future in which every president—at least those facing a House majority of the opposition party—will be impeached almost as a rite of political passage. Just as presidents are expected to deliver a State of the Union address each year to Congress, just as they once traditionally threw out the first ball on baseball’s opening day, future presidents will simply assume that at some point they will be impeached. In the British Parliament, Prime Ministers spend thirty minutes every week undergoing “Question Time,” in which they are put on the spot by often-hostile inquiries from the opposition. Impeachment may turn out to be our government’s elongated version of that exercise.
The likelihood of one party gaining the sixty-seat Senate majority required to actually convict a president and remove him from office has always been slim, and it is even less probable at a time of hyper-partisan political division. The chances of a president being forced out by impeachment are infinitesimal, which means that these future impeachments will become performative political programming in which presidential critics and defenders will simply play their assigned roles until the curtain falls. Like national party nominating conventions (another once-substantive part of the political process), impeachment will become another piece of theater in which the participants are evaluated not by their substantive goals and negotiating skills, but rather their ability to act out an assigned and pre-scripted role.
We saw hints of this during the Clinton and Trump impeachments, when no one truly expected the deliberations to lead to the president’s dismissal and both sides played their assigned roles until the inevitable status quo conclusions were reached. The upcoming Biden-focused theater should proceed in a similar fashion: the most compelling drama will be to see whether House Republicans can unite to accomplish the impeachment, or whether this particular enactment will end prematurely with a divided caucus unable to provide the necessary votes. In the meantime, endless amounts of time, energy and oxygen will be expended wondering exactly how and when it will fail, at the expense of debate, cooperation and progress on policy matters of actual substance and relevance to voters’ lives.
All but the most extreme members of the GOP understand that it will be almost impossible for Biden to be convicted in a closely divided Senate. But they also recognize that a high-profile performance of this nature may serve to complicate the public discussion of Trump’s various legal challenges throughout next year’s campaign. There are legitimate unanswered questions about Biden’s interactions with his son’s business associates and the inconsistencies of the president’s answers to these questions. But while an investigation of some sort may be appropriate, raising it to the level of impeachment is more of a public relations strategy than a legal or constitutional one.
There are many things that may cause Biden to leave office before he would like: a health or age-related matter, or a defeat at the hands of Trump or another Republican next November. But impeachment is not one of them, and every moment we spend discussing it from this point forward is a waste of time and brainpower when our nation’s leaders suffer from profound shortages of both.
Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.
This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).
Photo Credit: AP via New York Post