By Karen Tumulty and Wesley Lowery
The Washington Post
President Barack Obama is not being impeached. But for several years, Republicans have been indulging and even encouraging that fantasy on the part of the far-right edges of their party's base.
Conservative backbenchers have told their constituents that the House has the votes to impeach the president. High-profile figures such as former Alaska governor Sarah Palin have called for it. The new House majority whip, Steve Scalise, R-La., in an interview on "Fox News Sunday," declined to rule it out.
And now Democrats are raising millions off the idea that the GOP is serious about doing it. "I would not discount that possibility," presidential adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Friday.
On Monday night, members of the Congressional Black Caucus took to the House floor to sound the alarm in after-hours speeches.
All of this says a lot about election-year politics in a polarized country. A sort of Newtonian physics prevails. Every action, it seems, brings an equal and opposite reaction -- even if that action is just a feint.
"The whole thing is nutty. It's crazy. There are no articles of impeachment," said Kenneth Duberstein, who served as Ronald Reagan's White House chief of staff.
But acting as though there might be sort of makes political sense ahead of a midterm
election for which turnout is expected to be low, and both sides are looking for ways to energize their stalwarts.
"Republicans are trying to avoid any split between now and the election, because they think if they maximize the enthusiasm of their base, they are going to win a very significant victory," said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. "Democrats are flailing around for anything to change the subject."
Gingrich has some experience on the matter. He lost his position as speaker in part because of the Republicans' 1998 drive to impeach Bill Clinton, a move that was considered a major reason the party lost seats in a midterm election in which they had expected to make gains.
Impeachment is a penalty that Article II of the Constitution reserves for "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."
How Americans feel about applying it to Obama breaks down largely along party lines. In a recent CNN/ORC International poll, 35 percent overall said they think the president should be impeached and removed from office. But 57 percent of Republicans supported it, while only 13 percent of Democrats did. Among independents, the figure was 35 percent.
All this impeachment bluster also may be laying down the terms of engagement for another battle, should Obama soon -- as many expect -- take executive action to protect millions of illegal immigrants from the threat of deportation.
Republicans are saying that such a move would far exceed the president's constitutional authority. But whether they will go so far as to begin impeachment proceedings remains to be seen.
"This is the ultimate test of Lucy and Charlie Brown," Gingrich said, referring to the famous trick that one Peanuts comic character pulls on another. "The president is playing Lucy, and saying, 'Look at the football,' and seeing if Charlie Brown is dumb enough to come and kick the football."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has tried to tamp down the impeachment speculation.
"This whole talk about impeachment is coming from the president's own staff and coming from Democrats on Capitol Hill. Why? Because they are trying to rally their people to give money and to show up in this year's election," Boehner told reporters on Tuesday morning. "We have no plans to impeach the president. We have no future plans."
He added, "It's all a scam started by the Democrats at the White House."
The House voted on Wednesday on Boehner's plan to file a lawsuit against Obama for not implementing the Affordable Care Act as written. The move is freighted with irony, given how many times the House has voted to repeal the law.
"President Obama has overstepped his constitutional authority -- and it is the responsibility of the House of Representatives to defend the Constitution," Boehner wrote in an op-ed Sunday in USA Today.
Many legal experts question whether the courts would even take the suit. Republican strategists acknowledge privately that filing it would be merely symbolic and designed as a safety valve, to release some steam among the most strident in their party's base.
Democrats, in their own display of theatrics, warn that a lawsuit would be the first step toward impeachment.
"We now have a group of Republicans that are obsessed with suing the president and absolutely laying the groundwork for impeachment -- and they are -- that may animate their base, which is their intended strategy but it is also energizing our base," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York. "Their message -- 'Impeach, impeach, impeach, sue, sue, sue' -- it animates their base but they lose swing voters."
But the GOP's base is not the only one that has heard the call. After Pfeiffer made his comment about impeachment at a breakfast with reporters on Thursday, the Democrats' congressional campaign arm sent out a series of email pitches that cited impeachment -- and pulled in $2.1 million in online donations, the best four-day haul of this election cycle.
The average donation was less than $19, a sign that the appeal was reaching deeply into the Democrats' grass roots, and 75,000 of the contributions came from donors who had never given to the DCCC before, officials said.