Has impeachment talk gone too far?

Both parties are openly talking about impeachment when, politically speaking, it's going nowhere. The chatter shows how impeachment – or at least talk of it – is evolving as a useful political tool.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Dan Pfeiffer, senior adviser to President Obama, speaks to reporters in Washington Friday.

White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer had a lot to say about impeachment Friday, and in saying it, he said a lot about how the politics of impeachment are shifting.

Speaking to reporters at a Monitor Breakfast, Mr. Pfeiffer said that House Republicans' recent moves toward a lawsuit against President Obama open "the door to Republicans possibly considering impeachment at some point in the future."

For the record, House Republicans haven't done anything to suggest they're going to impeach Mr. Obama. There's been some low-level chatter, true. But the very lawsuit Pfeiffer is talking about is seen by many analysts as House Speaker John Boehner's attempt to head off any push for impeachment by throwing a bone to the Republican base.

Later in the Monitor Breakfast, Pfeiffer circled back to the topic of impeachment in a different context. He said that if Obama uses his executive authority this year to ease deportations of some illegal immigrants – as he has vowed to do – that "will certainly up the likelihood that [Republicans] would contemplate impeachment at some point."

Pfeiffer's comments clearly reflect a political reality: Many conservatives would dearly love to see Obama impeached, and their conviction will only grow if Obama takes executive action on immigration reform this year.

But the comments also serve a very clear political purpose. 

The talk of impeachment, notes the Monitor's Linda Feldmann, gives Democrats something nice and loud to rattle in an attempt to motivate the Democratic base both in fundraising now and in get-out-the-vote efforts in the November midterm election.

And linking impeachment to the president's potential executive action subtly shifts the battle lines. It suggests that "either you are with the White House on this, or you're with the impeachment crowd." The White House knows that most Americans don't support impeachment. A CNN/ORC poll released Friday finds that 35 percent of Americans back impeachment, and they're heavily Republicans. Linking opposition to executive action to impeachment is a way of trying to paint opponents as right-wing radicals.

At least since Lyndon B. Johnson, every president has had to deal with discontented calls for impeachment, writes political scientist and author Michael Austin. And the impeachment of President Clinton by the House added momentum to the transformation of impeachment from solemn constitutional sanction to ultimate political thumbscrew.

Recent weeks suggest further changes in the role of impeachment in American politics.

In June, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, a self-described constitutionalist, threatened Attorney General Eric Holder with impeachment if Mr. Holder didn't appoint a special prosecutor in the IRS case.

"He is ... implicitly arguing that impeachment is acceptable when a member of the executive branch fails to perform an executive function to the satisfaction of the legislature," writes Mr. Austin. "This is a flat misunderstanding of a Constitutional process."

In that light, Pfeiffer's comments Friday might merely seem like a return volley in D.C.'s cold war. Even though a House impeachment vote remains a remote possibility – and actual impeachment by the House and conviction by two-thirds of the Senate a virtual impossibility – Pfeiffer freely raised the topic in an apparent bid to turn the tables and score some political points with the Democratic base.

Fair play, perhaps.

But the almost casual talk of impeachment on both sides hints at just how far Washington's partisan RPMs have swung into the red.

[Editor's note: The original version misstated Mr. Pfeiffer's position at the White House and was imprecise about the Senate's role in impeachment proceedings.]

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