From the moment the specter of impeachment was raised against then-President Donald Trump, Republicans warned about precedent. If Democrats were going to use impeachment proceedings to score political points, the thinking went, Republicans would do the same when they got the chance.
“Democrats weaponized impeachment,” Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz said earlier this year on his podcast, “Verdict with Ted Cruz.” “They used it for partisan purposes to go after Trump because they disagreed with him. And one of the real disadvantages of doing that … is the more you weaponize it and turn it into a partisan cudgel, you know, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
With the prospect of winning back the House in this month’s midterms, Republicans are amping up plans to investigate the Biden administration. Among their concerns: the crisis at our southern border, Hunter Biden’s business dealings and the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Already, Republican Rep. Blake Moore, of Utah’s 1st District, introduced the Afghanistan Accountability Act, which requires extensive reports on the intelligence provided to President Joe Biden and other policymakers prior to the “botched withdrawal,” says Moore’s spokesperson via email. While language from this bill made its way into the current fiscal year’s National Defense Authorization Act, annual legislation that sets a budget for military spending, “Congressman Moore believes we must fully investigate the Afghanistan withdrawal when Republicans take the majority,” his spokesperson says.
To a certain extent, these sorts of investigations are normal when one party takes control of the House, says James Thurber, a government professor at American University who led the Center of Congressional and Presidential Studies for over 30 years. “There is a tendency for the out party to have extensive oversight hearings,” says Thurber. “If we have a divided government — with one party in the White House — then the chamber has oversight hearings. If it’s a unified government then they have hearings on what the last government did.”
Still, investigations and oversight hearings are also a symptom of the “extreme partisanship and polarization” that characterizes our moment, Thurber says, adding that we should also understand investigations and oversight hearings as part of a never-ending election cycle.
Republicans will “use oversight hearings to reinforce the position of the Republican Party on a variety of issues … (and) to help fundraise for the people who run the oversight hearings,” says Thurber, who points out that campaign money has flowed into the coffers of the Democrats running the January 6 committee.
“Democrats weaponized impeachment. They used it for partisan purposes to go after Trump because they disagreed with him.” —Sen. Ted Cruz
While investigations will certainly take up much of the public’s bandwidth, analysts disagree as to whether they will result in gridlock that impedes policy and legislative proposals. While Thurber believes a Republican midterm sweep will result in more gridlock, Ken Kollman, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, says, “Congress could certainly do many things at the same time; Congress can have investigations and do legislation. It’s not so much the institution itself that can’t handle more than one thing, it’s more what’s getting the attention of the news and what’s in the headlines.”
Even in the unlikely scenario that Democrats keep the House in November, we can still count on investigations. “If the Democrats retain the House and the Senate, I think we’ll see a lot of investigations into the former Trump administration,” Kollman says. “Investigations are a tool of whatever party controls the chambers. It’s both a campaign tool and a form of position taking — you’re trying to do as much damage as you can to your opponents.”
But both the probability and results of an impeachment are less certain. Though articles of impeachment could pass in a Republican-controlled House — and Republican voters would broadly support the initiative — they are likely to die in the Senate, says Jesse Rhodes, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, even if the Republicans have a majority.
“I think there would be a lot of concern among Republican leaders in the Senate that this (an impeachment) would be serious overreach and would end up strengthening Biden and the Democrats going into 2024,” says Rhodes.
Noting that it’s unlikely that the Republicans will take the Senate, Thurber says, “Biden would never be convicted in the Senate whether he is guilty of something or not.”
While data shows that impeaching Biden would appeal to the Republican voter base — with over two-thirds of Republicans supporting the move according to a May 2022 poll conducted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst — there isn’t a consensus within the party’s leadership as to whether impeaching Biden is the right move in the current political climate, largely because Republicans are mindful of the fact that impeaching Biden in 2023 could backfire in 2024.
“If articles of impeachment were brought in the House, I think Biden and the Democrats would say this is a sign that they’re not dealing with the interests of the American people. … I think Republicans who have been around awhile, they have memories of this,” says Rhodes, pointing to the fact that the impeachment inquiry of then-President Bill Clinton actually strengthened the Democrats’ standing. In the 1998 midterms, which took place just a month before the formal impeachment proceedings of Clinton began, the Democrats made historic gains in the House. While those gains weren’t enough to take the House, the story should serve as a cautionary tale to Republicans.
This year’s elections could also be likened to the 1962 midterms, says Richard Neumann, a law professor at Hofstra University who has written about the weaponization of impeachment. After the Cuban missile crisis burnished then-President John F. Kennedy’s image, the Democrats lost only two seats. “If they lose two seats this time, they keep the House,” says Neumann.
Though Biden hasn’t been staring down the barrel of warfare on American soil, he has grappled with a pandemic, record-setting inflation, spiraling gas prices and rent spikes. As of late, there’s also been tensions with China over Taiwan, not to mention the war in Ukraine and Russia’s accusations of America’s “direct involvement” in the conflict. But the administration’s recent legislative victories have given a bump to Biden’s approval rating, which has slowly been on the rise after spending more than a year below 50 percent.
In his analysis of the likelihood that the Democrats will win the House, Nate Silver of polling analysis site FiveThirtyEight also notes the parallels between 1962 and 2022, remarking that both were characterized by “special circumstances.” Silver, however, doesn’t believe that Covid-19 or a potential war with China or Russia constitutes special circumstances. Rather, “I’m keeping my eye on the potential for a special political circumstance, more like what we saw in 1998, when the public responded to increasing Republican partisanship and their efforts to impeach Clinton,” he writes.
This is all to say that, even if they do take the House in the midterms, Republicans who have these historical precedents in mind might end up treading lightly when it comes to impeachment. Republicans “are aware that they have a solid chance of winning in 2024,” says Rhodes, “and they don’t want to mess that up. … I think we’re seeing a tension or conflict between the base that would be pretty enthusiastic about these kind of hardball tactics and those who want to court more moderate voters.”
“Investigations are a tool of whatever party controls the chambers. It’s both a campaign tool and a form of position taking —you’re trying to do as much damage as you can to your opponents.”
Republican leadership, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is “very aware that (impeachment) would play into Democrats’ hands,” says Rhodes.
He adds that when it comes to impeachment, we could also see some conflict between House Republicans and those in the Senate. “I think we might see some tension between rank-and-file members in the House who can say whatever they want, (because) they chair pretty conservative districts and can still win, and those in the Senate who have to win statewide races.” Already, some Republican candidates who pushed hard to the right to win primaries are facing potential losses in statewide elections, Rhodes says.
So we might see some Republicans tiptoeing away from populist rhetoric and partisan moves that could prove unpopular, like impeaching the sitting president. And this might mean distancing themselves from Trump, who is increasingly viewed as a liability.
With their eyes on 2024, Republican leaders are trying to assess “what Trump’s stature in the party is going to be, whether he’s going to run, and how damaged he is. … If you look at national opinion polls he’s really damaged goods,” says Rhodes. All of this factors into how Republicans will handle investigations and impeachment.
“It’s a really challenging environment for the GOP right now, and I think a lot of the GOP leadership is trying to figure out where their footing should be.”
As for Cruz’s on-air assertions that “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” Cruz is saying what he needs to say to get reelected, according to Kollman, who adds “Ted Cruz will almost surely run for president again; he wants a certain reputation and wants to carve out a particular niche among the Republican electorate.”
That doesn’t mean Cruz, or other Republicans will make good on these threats. Because what’s good for one audience in the drama of political theater might not be good for another.