Why this impeachment may be meaningless to voters

Of all the consequential issues that may affect the 2024 election, the one that appears to be the least impactful is the Republican move to impeach President Joe Biden. It’s a strange sentence to even write, let alone believe.  

Impeachments used to feel like the ultimate political punishment. To be impeached was a shot at a president’s character, at his moral or ethical standing. Impeachment was a tool the founders created to punish a politician who they feared the courts couldn’t. Political crimes aren’t necessarily something you can write into our criminal code. The ability of politicians to overcome unethical or illegal behavior by using their popularity was something the founders feared, and they created a mechanism to protect the democracy from unethical demagogues.  

But somewhere along the way, impeachment became just another political campaign tactic, like getting out the vote, filing an ethics complaint or launching a TV ad. The lazy conventional wisdom on this phenomenon lies somewhere between the right wing — saying Democrats lowered the impeachment standard with their obsession with impeaching Donald Trump twice — and the left, arguing that what started this devolution of the impeachment process was Republicans’ deciding to use it as a weapon against Bill Clinton. 

I’ve now lived through three impeachments, and all of them began with at least some form of case for a “high crime or misdemeanor” that wasn’t totally laughable. In Clinton’s case, we can debate whether Congress should hold the presidency to a specific moral and ethical standard beyond just financial. I think, in hindsight, the country decided that while it didn’t approve of Clinton’s personal behavior toward women, it wasn’t enough to prompt the equivalent of the political death penalty. 

Are we better served for having gone through the exercise? That might depend on where you sit politically, but compared to the two other impeachments that followed, the Clinton impeachment certainly looks like small ball — a fitting end to a decade that turned out to be the halcyon days of my lifetime. To put it another way, we as a society probably didn’t know where the impeachment line should be drawn on morals and ethics — until we actually went through the process. Whether or not you believe it should have happened or agree with the final outcome, we did learn something about what the American public will tolerate in our political leaders. 

And then there are the two Trump impeachments, both of which were launched over noble concerns. The first impeachment was about fears the president was using American taxpayer dollars to coerce a foreign country (Ukraine) into creating the illusion of wrongdoing by Joe Biden by opening an investigation into Biden and/or his son. 

The second impeachment also clearly fell into the category of a political crime: “incitement of insurrection,” according to one charge, for the purposes of trying to stay in office, despite the results of the election. 

The fact that all three impeachments failed to result in conviction is what the founders assumed would be the most likely outcome.

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 65, seemed to predict the polarization all three impeachments created (or reflected) in our politics. 

Because impeachments were created to deal with “the misconduct of public men,” as he wrote, “they are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”

“The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties, more or less friendly or inimical, to the accused,” Hamilton continued. “In many cases, it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence and interest on one side, or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger, that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”

This brings me to the coming Biden impeachment. The actual facts don’t come anywhere near any of the three other modern presidential impeachments. The accusations against Biden haven’t been confirmed or proved by anyone. Whatever you think of the three other impeachments, the conduct the presidents were accused of was plain for everyone to see. There was no doubt Clinton had an affair with an intern, there was no doubt Trump tried to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into opening a probe against Biden, and Trump’s speech on Jan. 6, 2021, alone is evidence of what he hoped his supporters would accomplish by marching on the Capitol.

The point is the conduct alleged in those impeachments wasn’t really in question. The question was whether the conduct was bad enough to merit the political death penalty.

Now House Republicans appear to be moving toward impeaching Biden for what he could have done — in this case, profiting off his brother’s and son’s efforts to profit off their association with him.

But House Republicans have failed to unearth any proof that Joe Biden profited from, let alone directed, what his son Hunter or his brother James were doing in their business dealings with foreign clients.

Whenever they are confronted with this uncomfortable set of facts, the House Republicans who are itching to follow through with impeachment essentially fall back on some version of “Well, prove to me Joe Biden did not profit off what his son and brother did.”

And yet, because our politics are so polarized, and because enough Republicans decided against convicting Trump of his high crimes against democracy, the entire impeachment process now has the look and feel of a tit-for-tat. You impeached our guy, so we have to impeach your guy — that way voters have a choice between two impeached presidents in 2024.

Much of the impeachment fever on the right is driven by Trump and his grievance campaign. He has personally been encouraging his closest House GOP supporters not to drop the impeachment inquiry. It’s actually bad general election politics for the House GOP to go down this road. Why? Because the single best way to rally disillusioned Democrats to Biden’s side is to impeach him on a strictly party-line vote.

But these House Republicans are pushing for it anyway, mostly because they fear their own Trump-supporting constituents. Whether true or not, Trump has convinced his supporters that Biden is no more or less corrupt than he is, and now he’ll look to wield a congressional impeachment as evidence.

Trump is still angry over being impeached at all, and whatever happens to him, he simply wants to redirect it against his opponents. That is why Trump talks about prosecuting Biden if he gets back into office. He wants his supporters to believe that everything done to him was political and that the easiest way to prove that the impeachments and indictments are “political” is to do the same thing to the other party or the other opponent.

What has been strategically brilliant about this Trump-led impeachment strategy is that it has put people who are against it in the uncomfortable position of defending what Hunter and James Biden apparently did do: use their last name and perceived access to Joe Biden as a way to get clients. It may seem slimy, but it isn’t illegal, and the tactic is as old as the republic. Access to powerful government officials has always been a lucrative business, which is why some of the highest salaries in all of Washington are those of registered lobbyists.

And that’s where the disingenuous House GOP outrage over the Biden family is on full display. As I’ve said numerous times to any elected Republican I’ve interviewed about Hunter Biden’s business activity, if you are outraged by what the Biden relatives have done, you must be apoplectic about what Jared Kushner and Steve Mnuchin have done, by parlaying their government relationships in the Trump administration to gain access to key funders of their Middle East hedge fund. As The New York Times outlined, both Kushner and Mnuchin appeared to mix their government duties and their personal post-administration ambitions during the last few months of the Trump administration.

That is: If Republicans care about politicians’ making money off of government, then they should be equally concerned and outraged by how the Trump family has conducted itself.

But the lack of concern about this issue is why it’s hard to see this Biden impeachment as anything more than a political exercise. I might be slightly more sympathetic to the strategy had the Democrats, say, impeached Trump over his hotel and the violation of the emoluments clause.

I’m not trying to defend Trump’s ethics with his hotel. It’s pretty clear that the hotel was an unseemly part of how Trump used his presidency to line the Trump Organization’s pockets. But had Democrats decided to impeach him over it, it would have felt like the equivalent of going after Clinton for an affair. It’s unethical, it’s a bad example for the country, but does it rise to the level of the political death penalty?

What I really can’t wait for is how some members of Congress will explain why it’s OK for their relatives to trade off their names to get business in the world of government relations, but not Biden’s relatives.

There are quite a few lobbying firms and lobbyists who got their starts thanks to their last names, and there are plenty of current members of Congress who have relatives working in advocacy or lobbying roles. I’m working on putting together an exhaustive list of members of Congress and their relatives who lobby, but here’s just a cursory outline of the practice on both sides of the aisle: 

  • Rep. Ruben Gallego’s wife has lobbied for the National Association of Realtors. Gallego, D-Ariz., is running for the Senate in 2024.
  • GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington is also married to a lobbyist, who even lobbied him (before they were married) on dairy issues.
  • Patrick Casey, the brother of Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., registered this year to lobby on issues involving the CHIPS Act. 
  • The husband of Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., was hired onto the public affairs team of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for gunmakers.
  • And the wife of Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is a state lobbyist in Illinois, where some of her clients have benefited from federal funding and programs.

The surfacing of hypocrisy in Washington is as shocking as the sun rising in the east. But that’s what this entire current impeachment mess looks like: a ham-handed, hypocritical political exercise that’s designed only to gum up casual voters’ views on the corruptibility or corrupt intent of both presidential candidates.

If you are a member of Congress and you are truly outraged by family members’ making money off of government, then work on stricter lobbying reporting rules, stricter campaign finance rules and codes of conduct for family members of sitting presidents. The unseemly nature of the Washington lobbying scene is outrageous, whether it’s foreign governments’ buying access to Washington (see Qatar and, among other things, its recent foray into Washington sportswashing) or the sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, spouses and more who think a relative’s election to office is the equivalent of a Willy Wonka golden ticket to wealth.

The goal should be to prevent it from happening, not simply be selectively outraged when a member of the other political party exhibits unethical behavior. Alas, assuming the House GOP does go through with this impeachment, it probably will serve only to make the public yawn whenever it sees or hears the word. Perhaps that’s a feature for the House GOP, not a bug. 

January’s most important election 

It’s hard to believe the Iowa caucuses are just a month away — because normally, when the caucuses are this close, there’s a feeling that things are starting to get competitive there. But we are far from competitive at the moment. About the only interesting race in Iowa is for second place. If Nikki Haley can finish ahead of Ron DeSantis in Iowa, I do think it gives her a chance to consolidate what’s left of the non-Trump vote and win New Hampshire.

And yet, I’m not sure where else she thrives after New Hampshire. It seems painfully obvious that Haley’s make-or-break state for the actual nomination will be her home state, South Carolina. And if Trump seems insurmountable in Iowa, he’s most likely unbeatable among the more MAGA-friendly South Carolina GOP electorate.

But as interesting as Iowa is supposed to be in January, there’s another election that I think will be far more important to our future: the Jan. 13 presidential election on the island of Taiwan.

If the current leader in the polls, Vice President Lai Ching-te, goes on to win, the U.S. may find itself in a Taiwan crisis sooner than it had planned for. Lai’s election is the one Beijing fears the most, as the Chinese government believes he’s far more in favor of full independence than the other, more China-friendly candidates on the ballot.

Already, there are concerns in the U.S. intelligence community that Chinese President Xi Jinping may view the election of Lai as such a threat that he will speed up his timeline on when he wants to either coerce Taiwan back into the fold or simply invade it and bring it back by force. Considering how thinly the West is spread right now across conflicts in Israel and Ukraine, opening up a third front would put even more strain on our own domestic politics.

If it’s hard enough to convince Americans that what happens in eastern Europe is a threat to America’s future security, try convincing Americans we ought to go to war with China over an island that most of them couldn’t find on a map. Bottom line: Xi may decide his own military won’t be able to take Taiwan in 2024, but the threat of the possibility is just one of many 2024 wild cards that could upend our own politics. And it has almost zero to do with Trump and his trials or Biden and his age.

Perhaps the Taiwan issue will spark a more direct debate — one we should have but often avoid — about whether America should be the world’s democracy beat cop. Here’s my first rebuttal for those who don’t want America to play this role: If not us, who? Would you rather have America and the West as the globe’s policing force or China and Russia? It’s part of the reason the January election you should be paying the most attention to is in Asia, not Iowa.