Statesmenlike, responsible Republicans — that is, what passes for responsible in the dysfunctional, feedback-loop-impaired GOP — seem to have learned exactly two useful lessons from the Newt Gingrich era: Don’t shut down the government, and don’t impeach the president over nonsense.
OK, it’s a little more complicated. The real shutdown lesson seems to be, more or less, not to assume that a government shutdown will magically produce Republican gains, regardless of the context; the other is to avoid impeaching popular presidents when you clearly don’t have the votes to convict.
Unfortunately, while House Speaker John Boehner and other marginally responsible Republicans seem to have absorbed that much from Gingrich’s disasters, Republicans with less specific memories of the 1990s seem to have taken a different lesson from the Gingrich years: Impeachment and government shutdowns are what “real conservatives” do, and anyone who doesn’t support them at the drop of a hat must be either a secret liberal or one of those wimps who are always selling out real conservatives.
On the upside, there hasn’t been a shutdown (so far) or an impeachment (so far).
And on the downside? It’s not just that those tactics are a bomb that may eventually go off. They’re also a perfect excuse for everyone not to do any real governing. The crazy faction of the GOP gets to have something purely symbolic and tactical that differentiates it from mainstream conservatives without having to do the hard work of a substantive critique. The relatively responsible mainstream conservatives get to feel responsible and don’t have to respond to a serious conservative critique. And Democrats of all stripes get to note that the other party is loony, which makes it that much easier for them to avoid serious policy confrontation.
I’m not saying that everyone is guilty here — obviously, the people going around talking about how great it would be to impeach the president for unspecified or vague “crimes,” if only they had the “evidence,” are massively irresponsible hucksters at best and a threat to the U.S. constitutional system at worst. I’m just saying that the results create incentives for everyone to act badly — even if the bomb never goes off.
It’s hard to remember, but there was once a time when the only remedy for presidential misbehavior, even real misbehavior, wasn’t a pointless impeachment; when both conservatives and liberals believed that they could bargain honestly without anything like the hostage-taking that today’s Party of Newt treats as normal.
In other words, it’s easy to view the impeachment thing for the joke that it is, but remember that the joke may still have damaging consequences.
Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics.