In the wake of the midterm elections, Republicans said they would prove they could govern. This did not, in contrast to the flickering hopes of bipartisans, mean that they would start passing business-friendly reform bills that Obama would sign. It meant they would keep the kooks locked in the basement. Republicans had swept the elections by making politics boring, relentlessly policing their nominees from uttering any controversial statements, and grinding Washington to a halt. The Republican plan for the next two years was continued, boring gridlock. No shutdowns, no impeachment.
But just a week and a half after the elections, the kooks are pounding on the door.
The cycle of events was set off by President Obama snubbing the traditional ritual of penitence at his post-midterm press conference, crediting the Republicans with merely a “good night” rather than supplying them with a brandable term like “thumpin’” or “shellacking,” and generally acting unchastened. He followed this up with a series of steps that displayed a desire to continue acting like the president rather than waiting quietly for his term to end: He endorsed vigorous support for net neutrality, secured a major climate agreement with China, and plans a major liberalization of immigration law through executive action.
Obama’s forthcoming immigration plan, in particular, is the thing most likely to set off the Republican right. The main reason is that Republicans have a legitimate cause for complaint on procedural grounds. Obama may have a sound legal basis for his proposed actions, but he would be stretching executive branch power in new and potentially disturbing ways. Selective refusal to enforce laws, even if legally permissable, opens up vast new avenues of presidential power.
Further inflaming conservative suspicions is the fact that John Boehner wants very badly to pass immigration reform. (Though not badly enough to bring a bill to the House floor.) In a post-election meeting with Obama, Boehner reportedly pleaded for one more chance to pass a bill and even seemed to tacitly accept that Obama would act on his own if that failed:
Boehner recalled telling Obama, “Mr. President, just give us one more chance to do this the right way. If we can’t, then do what you gotta do.”
The sentiment, recalled by several lawmakers exiting the meeting, angered conservatives not only because the Ohio Republican paired an immigration effort to Obama’s plan to brazenly flout his constitutional role, but also because he seemed to have let him off the hook in the event he later went ahead with the plan.
“To me it’s unacceptable. We believe what [Obama] is doing is unconstitutional,” said one fuming lawmaker leaving the session.
Boehner is attempting to channel the conservative backlash into a lawsuit against Obama, which stands little chance of succeeding, and would helpfully divert conservative anger away from high-profile political channels. Conservatives, dissatisfied with this probably symbolic measure, are organizing to instead instigate a shutdown fight.
The conflict centers on how Congress decides to fund the continued operations of the government. Republican leaders had hoped to pass a year-long bill to keep the government open. Ultraconservative dissidents have instead proposed a short-term bill, which would allow Republicans to come back and attach conditions (weakening Obama’s authority to regulate the environment and revamp immigration enforcement) to any bill to keep the government open. A bill that prevents a shutdown for a year, argues a National Review editorial, “would surrender all leverage Republicans have with government funding.”
That a shutdown gives Republicans any actual leverage, as opposed to imagined leverage, is another right-wing fantasy. It is now fairly well-established that the sole impact of a government shutdown is to make the public hate the party that controls Congress. The gun the conservatives are holding is pointed at their own head.
The onset of Obama’s immigration plan has likewise given new life to the once-dormant movement to impeach him. Conservatives have generally discussed the prospect of impeachment with a kind of sullen resignation, as something that ought to happen, but won’t. The center of Republican thought is probably well represented by immigration hawk Mark Krikorian:
There is almost nothing the first black president could do that would lead to his impeachment. Yes, it’s a double standard, but Obama was only nominated and elected because of his race, so his de facto immunity from impeachment should not come as a surprise.
(Krikorian has an excellent point here. Think of every president in American history who has faced impeachment. They have one thing in common: They are all white. Why is that? I’ll tell you why: reverse racism.)
In recent days, one can detect a slow tectonic shift, as Republicans edge away from lamenting their inability to impeach Obama to longing for the prospect. Charles Krauthammer, perhaps the most influential Republican intellectual in America, wrote a column several months ago calling Obama’s immigration plan “impeachment bait.” It was something deviously conceived to lure Republicans into a reaction that would “likely backfire.”
Last night Krauthammer returned to the subject of impeachment. He is now salivating at that juicy, delicious bait:
Influential as Krauthammer is, his turnabout hardly commits the party to impeachment, or even a shutdown. These remain more like suicidal gestures by the activist right than serious attempts to commit party suicide. But it is already clear, just days after the election, that contrary to the fondest hopes of Boehner and McConnell, the kooks will not be going quietly.