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GOP Did Badly After Clinton’s Impeachment. Could Biden’s Have a Similar Effect?

The GOP is devoting its political capital to spinning stories on Biden. How will voters react to its fishing expedition?

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy talks to reporters as the arrives at the U.S. Capitol on September 18, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Next week, the GOP-led House will hold the first hearings in its impeachment inquiry into whether President Joe Biden abused his office to reap illicit benefits for his son, Hunter. The House will also subpoena Hunter Biden’s bank records.

That Hunter Biden is something of a sleazeball is hard to dispute; though one could well argue that his actions in trading on the family name to rake in cash are tame compared to those of Trump’s children. But to proceed from that conclusion to the notion that Hunter’s father is enmeshed in a meta-conspiracy around the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, around pressuring the Justice Department not to charge Hunter, and around a slew of other crimes is, at this point, a leap of faith. (Burisma is the politically connected Ukrainian energy company that hired Hunter as a board member in 2014 and that was being investigated by a Ukrainian prosecutor who, due to his corruption, the Obama administration pressured the Ukrainian government to fire.)

GOP attack-dog politicians have trained their sights on the president for years, and so far they haven’t uncovered the sorts of criminal activities that would justify impeachment.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s announcement of an impeachment inquiry is, at this point, not about following the evidence but about creating a dragnet intended to find something, anything, to merit all of this attention.

History contains a salutary lesson for McCarthy as to how this could all potentially go terribly wrong for him. In the November 1994 midterm elections, hardline Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, won a congressional majority. They viewed it as a mandate to start investigating any and every allegation against then-President Bill Clinton — from the allegations of sleazy business practices in Arkansas (the so-called Whitewater allegations), to allegations about his extramarital affairs and his entirely inappropriate relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Then-House Speaker Gingrich forced the appointment of independent counsel Kenneth Starr to investigate Clinton, and the GOP then used that investigation as a catchall to investigate every aspect of Clinton’s existence.

For the next four years, the GOP devoted much of its political capital to hunting down every whiff of a scandal involving the president.

When Starr’s office discovered that Clinton had sexual relations with Lewinsky, and when Clinton subsequently dissembled in answering intimate questions about his sex life, Gingrich pounced, with the House voting to open an impeachment inquiry in the early fall of 1998. Two months later, after a 14-hour debate, the House voted in favor of articles of impeachment against the president.

By then, however, the public had grown restive, wanting Congress to focus on issues other than what the majority of voters came to see as fishing expeditions against the president. In the midterm elections, which were held one month into the impeachment inquiry, the Republicans underperformed: Although they clung onto their majority, the party lost enough seats to render Gingrich’s job untenable. Soon afterward, he lost the speakership. In February 1999, after a short trial, the Senate voted not to convict Clinton on the two articles of impeachment the House had delivered to them. When he left office, two years later, Clinton’s popularity rating was a stunning 66 percent, the highest of any outgoing president since Harry Truman.

A quarter century on, the GOP is engaged in a similar fishing expedition against President Biden. Earlier this month, in an attempt to placate a hard right that has made its animating priority an eye-for-an-eye impeachment of Biden, in revenge for the double impeachment of former President Donald Trump, Speaker McCarthy agreed to open an impeachment inquiry against the president.

It was an extraordinarily brazen tradeoff, made as a result of the concessions McCarthy had to cede to hardliners during the 15 rounds of voting it took to secure his speakership: Having accepted the notion that a single member of the House can, at any time, request a vote on whether or not he should continue as speaker, McCarthy has been, from the outset, at the mercy of the likes of Representatives Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene. When they say “jump on impeachment,” McCarthy has precious little choice but to jump. When they threaten to defund the government unless impeachment proceedings start, well, that’s the road McCarthy dutifully goes down. When, at the urging of Trump, they demand investigations in exchange for voting to preserve basic government functions, again that’s a devil’s deal that the House speaker can’t really refuse. As GOP Rep. Victoria Spartz rightly noted, this isn’t the stuff of leadership, it’s the flimflam of an inherently “weak speaker” focused more on maintaining his title than his dignity.

Hence the absurd spectacle of McCarthy opening an impeachment inquiry, despite months of dead-end investigations led by Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), simply on the off-chance that the expanded investigative and subpoena powers that come with such an inquiry will pay dividends in terms of the discovery of high crimes and misdemeanors. McCarthy and his cronies are apparently banking on the idea that all of Hunter Biden’s manifest sleaziness will suddenly translate into a criminal conspiracy coordinated by his father, the president.

This isn’t an inquiry in response to the discovery of impeachable offenses; rather it’s an inquiry in search of such offenses. In other words, it’s a fishing expedition. McCarthy’s dour body language when he announced that he was asking for the inquiry, without a House vote, suggests he knows as much. He made a short, terse statement, took no questions from the press, turned around and left the stage.

According to the latest polls, half the United States public supports the opening of this inquiry — though more than half of independents oppose it. That’s about the same percentage as supported Trump’s first impeachment. It’s a considerably lower percentage than supported impeaching Trump the second time around, after the events of January 6, 2021. It’s also a lower percentage than the numbers of people who, in 2023, after years of inquiries into Trump’s role in the insurrection and after multiple indictments of the former president, now believe that Trump ought to be convicted for inciting an insurrection.

The U.S. is too polarized and too divided politically for an impeachment inquiry, or even a subsequent vote to impeach, to destroy the candidacy of either Trump or Biden. The vast majority of GOP voters will — as the polling on Trump shows even after four separate grand juries indicted him on felony charges — stick with their candidate no matter what. There’s no evidence to suggest that the vast majority of Democratic voters will do otherwise with their guy. While a large number of Democratic voters tell pollsters they are worried about Biden’s age and would like another choice, at the moment polls show he is about 50 percent ahead of Robert Kennedy Jr., the only other serious candidate to have thrown his hat into the primary ring; the House’s impeachment inquiry does not seem to have changed this calculus.

McCarthy’s decision to open an impeachment inquiry isn’t about securing a conviction of the president. There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell of 67 senators in the Democratic-controlled Senate voting to convict Biden; and it’s unlikely that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who counts Biden as a personal friend, will even rally Republican senators to go all-in on impeachment. Rather this appears to be about spectacle. It’s about the Gaetz-ing and Greene-ing of Congress, about the most extreme and bombastic members of the House now running the show.

Predictions are a dime a dozen in political commentary, but it’s hard to see, given current polling on the issue, how this will meaningfully hurt President Biden; it’s somewhat easier to see how McCarthy’s speakership might end up suffering much the same fate as did Gingrich’s in the late ‘90s.

There’s a lot of talk these days about Biden’s unfavorability rating. But perhaps more attention should be paid to the speaker’s own numbers. Only 8 percent of voters have a very favorable opinion of McCarthy, and another 22 percent have a somewhat favorable view of him. The remaining 70 percent either dislike the man or, despite his being second in line to the presidency after Vice President Kamala Harris, don’t know enough about him to have an opinion. Bland and boring, or distasteful and dishonest, this is hardly the stuff on which a historical legacy is built.

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