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Bessent: The double-edged sword of impeachment

President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at Knox

President Barack Obama pauses while speaking at Knox College July 24, 2013 in Galesburg, Illinois. Credit: AFP/Getty Images / Brendan Smialowski

There’s been too much reckless talk of impeachment lately.

Impeaching a president is serious business.  It’s  the nuclear bomb of American politics. It’s traumtic for the body politic and disruptive for the government.  It should be a last resort.

Today it’s being tossed around cavalierly for partisan advantage rather than to punish high crimes and misdemeanors as the framers of the U.S. Constitution intended.   

Forty years ago this week, President Richard Nixon resigned rather than risk impeachment two tumultuous years after burglars working for the committee to re-elect him were caught breaking into Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

In the subsequent cover-up, FBI Director L. Patrick Gray resigned after admitting he destoyed evidence under pressure from Nixon aides.

Nixon moved to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox after he vowed to obtain audio tapes of conversations in the oval office.  The result was the “Saturday night massacre” in which Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his top deputy resigned rather than carry out the hit on Cox.  

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ordered Nixon to surrender the tapes on which he was heard scheming to pay hush money to the Watergate burglars.

On Saturday, July 27, 1974 the House Judiciary Committee approved the first article of impeachment charging Nixon with obstruction of justice. The vote was bipartisan;  17 Republicans and 21 Democrats.

Nixon resigned Aug. 9, 1974 just ahead of an impeachment vote in the full House.
Criminality, conspiracy, intimidation, hush money, resignations, cover-up; that’s the stuff of impeachment. Not the allegation that Obama abused his powers as president by failing to enforce a provision of the Affordable Care Act requiring employers to provide health insurance for their employees.

But Tea Party conservatives have been throwing the “I” word around since Barack Obama’s first term when they were convinced he wasn’t born in the United States, all evidence to the contrary.

Impeachment talk spiked recently when the Republican House majority voted to sue Obama for delaying the employer mandate. Former vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin, conservative talk show hosts and some Congressional Republicans have been beating the drum, and  Democrats have amplified the noise in a shameless attempt to drive campaign fundraising.

Is it possible Obama crossed the line onto turf belonging to Congress? Yes, it is — in the same way President George W. Bush may have in 2006 when he waived penalties for seniors who missed the legal deadline for signing up for newly available Medicare part D drug coverage.

But that was a different, less reflexively partisan time and Congress let Bush’s pragmatic decision to relax the law pass unchallenged.

The last time Republicans mounted a partisan impeachment didn’t end so well for the party. Bill Clinton’s presidency, and his popularity, survived the charges of lying under oath and obstructing justice regarding his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky. And one month after the House authorized an impeachment inquiry in 1998, Democrats picked up five House seats in the midterm elections, and denied Republicans a  super-majority in the Senate.

When it comes to impeachment, rabble rousers on the right should be careful what they wish for.