By opening an impeachment investigation into President Joe Biden, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy unleashed an unpredictable and treacherous new political force into what is already the most abnormal election of modern times.
McCarthy effectively set up partisan counterprogramming to the looming criminal trials of his patron, former President Donald Trump, who’s the front-runner for the GOP nomination to take on Biden.
The key question heading into the third impeachment effort in three and a half years should be whether this attempt to effectively reverse a democratic election by ousting Biden is justified. The GOP failure so far to provide much more than innuendo – that Biden corruptly used his power while vice president to profit from his son Hunter’s business ventures – suggests it is not.
There is a crazed sense of irony and history coming full circle this week in Washington.
Trump was impeached the first time for effectively using presidential power and the prospect of military aid to try to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to initiate a criminal investigation into Biden, his future opponent in a presidential election. Now, his proxies in the House GOP are effectively weaponizing an impeachment inquiry of Biden to try to again destroy Trump’s potential opponent in the next presidential election.
And if Trump wins back the White House, Zelensky may find that the 47th president’s revenge for his failure to act the first time is a cut off of military aid Ukraine needs to remain a sovereign nation after an invasion by Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump has praised.
That is not to say that Hunter Biden did not create a perception of a conflict of interest by earning millions of dollars in places like Ukraine and China while his father had a large role in those foreign policy portfolios in the Obama administration. Some of Joe Biden’s own statements on his son’s activity are less than candid. And Republicans have established that Hunter Biden flew on Air Force Two and met foreign business associates on his father’s foreign trips. Then-Vice President Biden attended two dinners with his son and his business associates in Washington, DC, although one of Hunter’s associates testified that no business was discussed. Still, there was always the possibility that Hunter Biden’s activity could embarrass his father politically or be seen as an attempt to peddle access.
The White House insists that the president did nothing wrong – and Republicans haven’t provided solid evidence that he has. That’s already making their impeachment probe look like a politicized circus – one that’s being used as a political tool rather than a constitutional remedy of last resort.
The pitched political battle in the weeks to come could go a long way toward settling which version of two dueling narratives solidifies in the public mind – that’s if America is not so deeply polarized that the facts of a case simply depend on one’s partisan viewpoint.
— One theory about the speaker’s decision to open an impeachment investigation on Tuesday was that it was a concession to hardline pro-Trump lawmakers that might buy maneuvering room to defuse his other internal political crises, which could trigger a possible government shutdown beginning on October 1. That narrative barely lasted a day. Some of McCarthy’s rebellious members are still threatening to oust him if he brings up a short-term spending bill that the Senate would likely pass and that would keep federal operations running. Conservatives are demanding massive spending cuts and oppose more aid to Ukraine, a position the Senate and the White House will not accept. On Wednesday, it became clear McCarthy may struggle even to pass a defense bill – usually one of the less troublesome lifts in Congress.
— McCarthy is under fierce pressure to formalize an impeachment investigation by putting it to a full House vote. He fervently criticized then-Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for not doing so immediately in the first Trump impeachment. But on Wednesday, the speaker admonished CNN’s Manu Raju, who pointed out that he had gone back on his word to do things differently. It was an exchange that showed how McCarthy is already having trouble defending the probe outside the conservative bubble, a trend that could become politically corrosive for the GOP, especially its narrow House majority.
— The reason McCarthy isn’t holding a floor vote is that he doesn’t yet have the votes to drive a formal endorsement of an inquiry, given that slim majority and the skepticism of some of his own members. Colorado Republican Rep. Ken Buck, for instance, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday that he had so far not seen any evidence connecting President Biden to Hunter Biden’s activities. “He doesn’t have the votes, the Republican votes to pass a resolution to open an impeachment inquiry,” Buck said of McCarthy.
— McCarthy could be buying time, perhaps to spare vulnerable Republican members a tough vote. It’s possible GOP committee chairmen come up with new information or at least knit a narrative in the coming weeks that makes it easier for those members to back the speaker’s move. While he is hostage to the far-right of his party on impeachment, McCarthy’s majority runs through districts in states like New York, where some more moderate Republicans represent districts Biden won in 2020. If impeachment is exposed as a naked political play, those seats could swing back in 2024.
— Because of the fragile nature of his speakership, which took him 15 rounds of balloting to win, and the extent to which his power is on loan from pro-Trump extremists, McCarthy often seems to lack a long-term strategy. Impeachment may fall into this category, because it’s not clear the speaker has any idea how it will play out. Every crisis seems to drain his power more. He’s dancing on the head of a pin. And the pin keeps getting smaller.
Biden’s political liabilities
In some ways, the White House has a political advantage. The failure of Republicans to produce evidence at the outset of any direct wrongdoing by the president immediately piled pressure on McCarthy. There’s no evidentiary basis of abuses of power as there was during the launch of Trump’s two impeachments – the second of which followed the January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection.
Yet the unfolding impeachment drama will impose immense pressure on a White House and presidential campaign already saddled by Biden’s low approval ratings, worries about his age and growing concerns about the authoritarian nature of a potential second Trump term.
— If even he is impeached in the House, Biden will not have to worry about a two-thirds Senate majority convicting him and dismissing him from office given that Democrats control the chamber. But televised hearings and even unsubstantiated allegations could stain his image.
Many of the current GOP leaders, including House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan and McCarthy, were heavily involved in the Benghazi hearings that Republicans used to inflate a cloud of scandal around former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ahead of the 2016 election, which she ended up losing to Trump. McCarthy celebrated the political damage that the probe – which was officially into the death of four Americans in a US consulate in Libya – had done to the eventual Democratic nominee. He’s unlikely to be as candid over his impeachment goals today, but Democrats suspect that his aim isn’t much different.
— Months of impeachment stories will provide a test for a president and a White House that hasn’t always successfully delivered a strong political message. CNN’s White House team reported Wednesday that the administration had put into action a counter-impeachment plan even before McCarthy’s announcement. The early stages of their response saw aggressive efforts to convince the public, and even journalists covering the story, that the claims against Biden lack evidence. “If you don’t answer it, it can sink into the voter psyche. They’re walking that line,” a person familiar with White House thinking told the CNN team. Biden’s aides may have reason to worry. In a recent CNN poll, 61% of Americans thought that the president was at least somewhat involved in his son’s business dealings in Ukraine and China.
— The classic counter-impeachment strategy was enacted by President Bill Clinton, who was impeached by a Republican House and eventually acquitted by the Senate after lying under oath about an affair with a White House intern. The two-term Democrat strove feverishly to convince Americans he was working hard for them while his foes were engaging in political victimization. It worked. Bill Clinton left office with high approval ratings and established the conventional wisdom that impeachment can cause more short-term political damage for those doing the impeaching than the impeached.
Biden may lack the political skill and energy of the 42nd president, but he is already borrowing from his playbook. After McCarthy ordered his probe, the White House touted Biden’s work on his cancer program. And on Thursday, he will give another speech on “Bidenomics” that will stress his effort to restore prosperity for working-class Americans. “I get up every day not focused on impeachment, I’ve got a job to do. I’ve got to deal with issues that affect the American people every single solitary day,” Biden said at a fundraiser Wednesday evening, according to a pool report.
— More broadly, Biden could use an impeachment inquiry to revive the theme of his presidential campaign of 2020 – a stand against Trump, extremism and attempts to poison American democracy. Assuming no wrongdoing is discovered, the president could use his plight to portray himself as a bulwark against Trump-style chaos and political chicanery and turn the 2024 election into a referendum on the lawlessness of his most likely opponent instead of his own record.