It would be amazingly dumb for GOP to impeach Biden — so sure, go for it

Kevin McCarthy could learn something from Newt Gingrich: His impeachment of Bill Clinton ended his career

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published November 14, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

Newt Gingrich and Kevin McCarthy (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Newt Gingrich and Kevin McCarthy (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

At the beginning of last week, the general assumption in the Beltway chattering class was that the midterm elections would be a "red wave," leading to Republicans taking over state governments, the Senate and a healthy majority in the House of more than 20 seats. Instead, Tuesday turned out to be an anti-MAGA election. Yes, Republicans will (in all probability) end up with an extremely slim majority in the House, but only thanks to extensive gerrymandering. (Without the Republican pickups enabled by redistricting in Florida and New York, Democrats would have won easily.)

The verdict was clear enough: Voters don't like Republican extremism. Every time they're reminded that the GOP is controlled by a bunch of conspiracy theory-addled jackasses who worship Donald Trump, voters show up and pull the lever for Democrats, even when they don't feel all that great about the Democrats either. 

Despite this, here's a safe prediction for what that barely-there House GOP majority, under the so-called leadership of wannabe Speaker Kevin McCarthy, will be doing in 2023: All MAGA nonsense, all the time. The cornerstone of their agenda, if that's even the word, will be to impeach President Joe Biden on made-up charges based on conspiracy theories cooked up in the MAGA swamplands — maybe with a side dose of debt-ceiling antics aimed at demanding steep cuts to the two most popular government programs, Social Security and Medicare. Because if their plan for power, after an election in which they nearly screwed the pooch, is to use that power to remind ordinary Americans of all the reasons they hate Republicans, why not go all the way? 

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As Heather Digby Parton explained last month at Salon, "a number of GOP officials and political advisers" believe impeachment is "inevitable." Not because Biden has done anything to merit it, mind you. Even the most rabid MAGA morons struggle to sound like they believe their own conspiracy theories about Biden. It's just that McCarthy is a weak leader and cannot contain the fire-breathers in his party like Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. (Who has already tried to introduce articles of impeachment against Biden any number of times.)

One would think that, after a midterm election in which GOP candidates lost dozens of offices they otherwise would have won, the momentum for impeachment Biden would slow down. Most voters hate Republican extremism and they especially hate Trump's childish tantrums, the largest single factor fueling the pressure to impeach Biden. In reality, however, the small margin Republicans will likely have in the House dramatically weakens McCarthy's already fragile control over his caucus. As Areeba Shah reports for Salon, "a slim majority hands significant power to extreme right-wing members." To get anything done, McCarthy will have to beg those folks for votes. They'll be able to extract big concessions from him — such as impeaching Biden over literally nothing.

Still, as he prepares to give into the nastiest people in an already ugly caucus, McCarthy should consider the fate of the man who held his position in the 1990s: Newt Gingrich. After riding a legitimate wave election to big Republican wins in 1994, Gingrich went down the same path that McCarthy is stumbling toward now, and the result was the end of his career as a congressman. 

Nowadays, Gingrich is the face of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998, which was based on trumped-up perjury charges over his affair with White House aide Monica Lewinsky. But as historian Nicole Hemmer told Salon, "Gingrich understood that impeachment was a political loser."

As she details in her book "Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s," Gingrich faced a nearly identical problem to the one McCarthy faces now: A Republican House majority that wanted to impeach Clinton, no matter what, and didn't really care if he was actually guilty of anything. Indeed, as Hemmer documents, impeachment pressure started pretty much the minute Republicans swept the 1994 midterms, gaining a whopping 54 seats in the House. 

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Gingrich, however, was reluctant, especially specially after he forced a government shutdown in 1995, hoping the public would blame Clinton. Instead, as Hemmer notes, Gingrich "lost badly to Clinton during the government shutdown," and then Clinton easily won the 1996 election. The whole gambit backfired, and yet when Gingrich "faced an insurgency in his ranks from his far-right flank," Hemmer explained, he gave in. Impeachment it was. 

That would lead to the end of Gingrich's career. Much like this year's elections, the 1998 midterms were supposed to bring big wins for Republicans. Instead, Democrats gained seats, largely because voters were disgusted by the spectacle of hypocritical Republicans impeaching Clinton over a personal failing and turned on the GOP. Gingrich was famously one of the biggest hypocrites, given his long history of adultery, which included an affair with a woman 23 years his junior — during the impeachment. 

As Parton notes, Republicans tell themselves it will be different this time, because they think they have a delicious spin to justify impeaching Biden: It's payback for Trump's two impeachments. She quotes Sen. Ted Cruz arguing that "Democrats weaponized impeachment" and "what's good for the goose is good for the gander."

Republicans' delicious spin on impeaching Biden is that it's payback for Trump's two impeachments. That will play will with rabid right-wingers — but why does Ted Cruz think it will play outside the true-believer base?

This argument will play well with rabid right-wingers, who love to tell themselves stories about how they and Trump are innocent victims of the "deep state" that is out to get conservative Americans for vague-but-sinister reasons. But Cruz clearly thinks the rest of America is stone-cold stupid, if he actually believes that argument will fly with anyone outside the true-believer Trump base.

Because here's the thing about both of Trump's impeachments: He was guilty. He was caught on tape trying to run an extortion scheme against the president of Ukraine. He incited a riot live on TV, in full view of the entire nation. These are the kinds of crimes that would land most people in prison, and he only got away with them because of his office and his political clout. Republicans barely pretended to have any other reason beyond perceived political expedience for their decision to acquit him in the Senate both times. 

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Whatever thin excuse Republicans may cook up to impeach Biden, it's unlikely to make much sense to people who don't live in the Fox News Cinematic Universe. Whatever Cruz thinks of the public's intelligence, most people know the difference between trying a guilty man and persecuting an innocent one. Going after Biden for made-up nonsense will likely play out like the impeachment of Clinton did, and perhaps even worse: It will serve as a stark reminder that the Republicans are controlled by the worst people in the country. (And in many cases are the worst people)

But even though we've seen this script play out before, Republicans leaders seem determined to act it out all over again. "Each Republican leader started by trying to co-opt the radicals," Hemmer explained. "Each ended by capitulating to them." They're trapped by the MAGA base for the same reason they're trapped by Trump. As bad as these people are for the party's image, they're also the source of most of their votes and a huge amount of their funding. Republicans can't win with the MAGA nuts, and can't win without them. So even though Kevin McCarthy knows full well that it's a losing proposition to impeach Biden, expect to allow the right-wing zealots to push him right off that cliff. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Analysis Bill Clinton Donald Trump Impeachment Joe Biden Kevin Mccarthy Newt Gingrich Republicans