When longtime Obama-foil Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is telling his fellow Republicans to settle down on the impeachment stuff, you know we’ve arrived at a strange place. Calling it something that "happens in third-world countries," the former head of the House Oversight Committee said this week, "I would ask everyone to calm down and go back to the basics, which is we have an opportunity at the ballot box to determine whether Hillary Clinton has disqualified herself with her actions. Do that first."
But Issa (who is painting himself as a moderate now that he’s in a tough reelection race) is probably not going to have a lot of company in advising his fellow Republicans to cool their jets. With the shouts of "Lock her up! Lock her up!" from Trump rallies ringing in their ears, elected Republicans know that their constituents are demanding nothing less than total war against Hillary Clinton, should she be elected. That doesn’t mean just opposing her legislation, derailing her nominees, or refusing to allow her to fill Supreme Court vacancies. It also apparently means preparing to toss her from office even before she gets there.
Granted, the number of Republicans proposing impeachment is small so far — but it’s growing, and it’s not just something being suggested by fringe figures. The current list includes Sen. Ron Johnson, Rep. Michael McCaul (the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee), and veteran Reps. James Sensenbrenner and Peter King. And, of course, Louie Gohmert, who said so at the urging of Sean Hannity, one of the most popular figures in the conservative media pantheon.
Would Republicans actually try to impeach Clinton? The practical answer is that it would be very difficult. But at the same time, they’ll be under intense pressure to do so.
In case you’ve repressed your memories of 1998 (which may be a healthy thing to have done), impeachment is a two-step process involving both the House and the Senate. The House votes on articles of impeachment, and requires only a simple majority vote for them to pass. Then the Senate holds a trial, but two-thirds of the senators are required to vote for conviction. In Bill Clinton’s case, the Senate voted to acquit him on a perjury article by 55-45, and split 50-50 on an obstruction of justice article.
From the beginning of that process, everyone except Republicans themselves knew they were going to lose, since they’d never get a bunch of Democratic senators to vote for Clinton’s conviction. But they may not have understood just how the country would turn against them for dragging everyone through the whole ugly process — as has happened many times, they were so convinced of Clinton’s infinite wickedness that they couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that the country wouldn’t agree with them.
Critically, the process was pushed forward by the Republican leadership of the time, particularly then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. (In a colorful historical footnote, at the time that he was impeaching Clinton for having an affair with a young staffer, Gingrich was himself having an affair with a young staffer. Though in fairness, Clinton was 27 years older than Monica Lewinsky, while Newt was a mere 23 years older than his paramour, who would go on to become the third Mrs. Gingrich.) Paul Ryan is nowhere near as reckless as Gingrich, and so it would seem unlikely that he’d send Republicans over that particular cliff again.
But there will be immense pressure from below to do just that, and not just from voices like Sean Hannity. After listening to Donald Trump telling them for a year that Clinton ought to be in jail, that she’s the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency, and that her decision to use a private server ranks somewhere between the Cambodian and Armenian genocides in the annals of history’s most horrific crimes, Republican voters are not going to be in the mood to put the whole thing behind them. And the supposedly reasonable Republican leaders have contributed to that feeling, by arguing that despite all the ways Trump is so ghastly a candidate and all their own condemnations of him, they had to stay by his side because Hillary Clinton is such a terrifying monster.
Just one piece of data: In a recent poll from Politico and Morning Consult, an incredible 82 percent of Republicans said that Clinton’s email controversy was "worse than Watergate." In case you’ve forgotten, that was the scandal in which a veritable smorgasbord of crimes were committed by dozens of people, the officials who went to prison included the attorney general and the president’s chief of staff and chief domestic policy adviser, and the president himself resigned when congressional Republicans told him he was about to be impeached and was certain to be convicted. That Watergate.
So if nearly all Republicans have come to agree that Clinton is already guilty of something worse even before she takes the oath of office and begins her project to destroy America, what is the base going to think in a year or two?
If the congressional GOP leadership retains any hint of sanity, they won’t impeach her, unless they finally locate the ironclad proof that she flew to Benghazi, killed Ambassador Chris Stevens with her bare hands, and then had a torrid one-night stand with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
But their failure to do so will become yet another article of impeachment the Republican base will proclaim against its party’s leadership. The voters who propelled Donald Trump to the 2016 GOP nomination will call their Washington representatives a bunch of spineless quislings who don’t have the guts to stand up to that tyrant in the White House — just what they said in the years leading up to this election. Which tells you something about what the next four years are going to be like.