From sea to shining sea, the howls of presidential impeachment have returned to the nation this month in grand fashion. “It would be a dream come true,” said Michigan Representative Kerry Bentivolio. Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn has declared Obama “perilously close” to meeting the constitutional standards required for an impeachment trial. Texas Representative Blake Farenthold has said the House GOP probably has the votes to do it.
But before the partisan outrage machines rev their engines for a noisy fight about Obama’s alleged “high crimes and misdemeanors,” some context might be in order. Calls for impeaching the President, especially spurious ones offered to channel political furies, have become almost as common in recent decades as hand-painted signs along the presidential motorcade route.
On the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, a crowd of young people, “dressed in the manner of the ’60s in Army fatigue jackets and long scraggly hair” urged onlookers to impeach the incoming President, according to a New York Times article from the time. Six months later, the leaders of Americans for Democratic Action sold “Impeach Reagan” buttons at its annual convention.
A few months later, in the fall of 1981, Reagan slipped to Camp David for a weekend to avoid 200,000 AFL-CIO protesters led by parade marshals in “Impeach Reagan” T-shirts. In 1983, Representative Ted Weiss and six other Democrats wrote a letter for his impeachment after he sent American troops to Grenada. One of the seven, Representative Henry B. Gonzalez, would later initiate the call for his impeachment again after the Iran-Contra affair. Before Reagan finished his second term, the president of the National Organization for Women had also called on Congress to investigate the possibility of impeachment.
In 1995, another reporter for the Times noticed a “whimsical” sign of Clinton’s rising popularity in bellwether election state Michigan: “Clinton! At Least He Cares” bumper stickers had begun to replace “Impeach Clinton.” Three years later the impeachment calls came to a ferocious tenor after the Kenneth Starr investigation of Monica Lewinsky. Clinton became the second President in history to be impeached on two close House votes on the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. (Andrew Johnson became the first in 1868. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 after Congress threatened to impeach.)
President George W. Bush, who came to office after convincing voters he would “restore honor and dignity” to the White House, endured discussions of his impeachment three years into his presidency. Ralph Nader called for Bush’s impeachment over the Iraq war during his 2004 run for the presidency, and in 2006, the Nation and Harper’s raised the issue on their covers. Republicans used the impeachment threat to rally conservatives to vote in the midterm elections. A multitude of books were written.
Former Representative Dennis Kucinich, a Democratic candidate for President in 2004 and 2008, has a history of calling for the President’s impeachment. In July 2008, a few months before Bush left office, Kucinich introduced with four co-sponsors a resolution calling for Bush’s impeachment for “deceiving” Congress with “fabricated threats” of Iraq WMDs in order to invade the country. (A year prior he went after Vice President Cheney in another impeachment resolution.) In 2011, he called President Obama’s decision to order air strikes against Libya an “impeachable offense.”
Despite Kucinich’s call, and the Tea Party wave of 2010, the momentum to condemn Obama for high crimes and misdemeanors waited until the first summer of his second term to really get going. From Richmond, Va., to Santa Clara, Calif., there have been groups carrying “Impeach Obama” signs on highway overpasses. Journalist and WABC radio host Aaron Klein and blogger Brenda Elliott claim that their new book, Impeachable Offenses: The Case for Removing Barack Obama From Office, has sold nearly 100,000 copies ahead of its release this week.
A copy of the book released to TIME shows that the arguments for impeaching Obama appear to fall far short of the historical legal threshold. The book claims that one of Obama’s impeachable offenses is signing Obamacare, for example, because the law is “unconstitutional.” This might surprise members of the Supreme Court who affirmed the law’s constitutionality with a 5-to-4 ruling last year.
Despite the talk, the chances of an Obama impeachment are slim. House Republican leaders have no current plans to get it on the docket. And other national party leaders are trying to move past the issue. “Let’s not talk about impeachment. Let’s actually talk about the policies we disagree with,” said Republican Governors Association chairman Bobby Jindal on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.
Jindal’s plea is backed by a solid political calculation, since he and other Republicans are wary of turning off swing voters less than a year after Obama won a decisive re-election. But that doesn’t mean Jindal has history on his side. Indeed, it would be more surprising if Obama weren’t facing calls for impeachment at this point in his presidency.