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House of Clowns

Joe Biden’s Impeachment Opportunity

Republicans are giving the president a foil and the chance to reset his own narrative.

Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
President Biden on September 13

Democrats are right to laugh off House Republicans’ futile effort to impeach President Joe Biden, as Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman did on Tuesday. The inquiry, announced earlier this week by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, is embarrassing and futile, a waste of everyone’s time. House Republicans are quite open about the fact that they have no evidence of any wrongdoing and have instead gestured wildly to a massive conspiracy that they will “uncover”—proof that they don’t have the goods.

The vague, sinister-sounding bribery and corruption charges Republicans have invented are no actual justification for either inquiry or action: Multiple investigations have found no evidence of wrongdoing by the president. The impeachment effort is strictly political. Republicans want to impeach Biden, both because many believe wild, false, fever-swamp narratives about the Biden family’s venality and corruption and because they want to get revenge for House Democrats’ impeachments of Donald Trump. (Some may also believe that it will damage Biden’s reelection chances, though that is far from certain.) McCarthy, ever-vulnerable as speaker, needs to keep his right flank happy. And so Republicans will embark on a silly, self-defeating impeachment that is certain to fail.

Given the bombastic rhetoric coming out of a likely impeachment effort, some Democrats may be tempted to ignore the whole affair rather than draw attention to the obviously false and insane charges. That would be a mistake, however. The impeachment will offer the Democrats a strong, early opportunity to make their best election argument: that Republicans are fundamentally unfit to govern. It will, moreover, also serve as an early opportunity to test the strength of Biden’s reelection effort more broadly.

The strongest case Democrats have against impeachment is that it’s not only a waste of time but is coming at the expense of governing: that the House GOP is privileging frivolous, political investigations over trying to fix a host of other pressing problems. Voters remain skeptical of the Biden administration’s economic record, despite its many substantial successes. As more projects funded by the Inflation Reduction Act pop up around the country, the administration can point to these as the tangible progress possible when they’re allowed to govern—as opposed to the political circus unfolding in Congress.

That clown show is also a gift because of timing. A government shutdown is looming—if appropriations bills aren’t passed by September 30, it will happen. And yet House Republicans are more concerned with their ridiculous impeachment inquiry than they are with averting what could be (another) catastrophic shutdown. Maybe the speaker will be able to do both at once—many observers see the impeachment push as a McCarthy sop to get his right flank to agree to fund the government—but that seems unlikely, especially given his precarious perch as House speaker. An actual impeachment—i.e., with the House Judiciary Committee being tasked with writing articles of impeachment—is unlikely in the next three weeks, of course. But the inquiry’s existence is an obvious distraction from more pressing issues.

Most importantly, however, the impeachment inquiry allows Biden to reset the political narrative. Voters have been wary of his leadership for some time—his poll numbers cratered in the late summer of 2021 and have hardly recovered. One possible explanation is the lack of a serious alternative or rival. Donald Trump remains the leader of the Republican Party but has hardly regained the prominence he held in the American political imagination before January 6, 2021. He has only recently started tweeting, he refused to participate in the one Republican presidential debate that has occurred, and it seems unlikely that he will show up to the one being held later this month. American politics is something of a vacuum at the moment, with Biden—an aging and often uninspiring figure—at its center, lacking a visible foil. The lack of a real contrast has been an albatross, especially in an era dominated by negative partisanship. The impeachment inquiry represents the first opportunity to reset that narrative. It makes McCarthy, a Trump lackey, the face of the opposition. (The fact that Trump has been pushing the impeachment behind the scenes only makes it easier for Team Biden.)

It also allows Democrats to portray Biden as a sympathetic figure. Many of the conversations pointed to as “evidence” of wrongdoing show the president a concerned parent of a struggling son. Republicans have attempted to use texts between the president and Hunter to make sweeping allegations of corruption and wrongdoing, but many voters outside the right-wing political-entertainment complex will see something both different and familiar: a caring father dealing with an addicted son who he loves. In fact, that’s a scenario many voters understand all too well. That the inquiry itself is baseless also allows Democrats to reframe voters’ perceptions of Biden: The texts with Hunter show him in a human light, and the inquiry itself underlines the real political headwinds—in the form of Republican intransigence and obstruction—that have held back his administration. The inquiry is an opportunity to rally voters behind him in a way the administration hasn’t had in some time—certainly not since Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act last year.

This will also act as a political barometer for anxious Democrats. Biden will need to rally voters behind him. He will need to make the case that his leadership is a necessary alternative to Republicans’ authoritarian clownery. He will need, in an election defined by negative polarization, to make the case that GOP leadership is a threat to the country. This is an early opportunity to gain momentum. But it’s also a dangerous one. If Republicans impeach Biden and the polls don’t move at all, that’s a very bad sign for a reelection effort that has yet to gain steam.