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Into the Briar Patch

Will Biden benefit from the GOP’s impeachment inquiry?

GOP Rep. James Comer speaks during a news conference alongside GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik and House Speaker Mike Johnson at the U.S. Capitol on November 29, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

There are two hazards of writing a daily newsletter. One is that you’re forever desperate for new inspiration. The other, very much related, is that you’re forever at risk of repeating yourself.

This morning I brought my editors good news. I had found some inspiration in the unlikely figure of Vivek Ramaswamy, whose latest conspiracy theory gave me both an idea and some light brain damage when I stumbled upon it last night.

There’s a reason the national media is suddenly chattering about impeaching Joe Biden, of course, and it has nothing to do with “moving their puppet aside.”

“How about a piece on the politics of the impeachment inquiry, specifically whether it might backfire on Republicans?” I asked my editors. “Great idea,” they replied. It was settled—until a dim memory was jogged that I had written that same column a few months ago.

“How about an updated piece on the politics of the impeachment inquiry?” I sweatily proposed. They sweatily agreed, and here we are.

The update is needed because the political world looks different since that newsletter was published in September. We have a new speaker of the House, for one thing, and his honeymoon period has been rockier than anticipated. He needs a pacifier for the fussy populist babies in his conference who may or may not be thinking of replacing him with Steve Scalise. He found it in the form of a floor vote to formalize the impeachment inquiry that Kevin McCarthy had ordered this past fall.

We also have a smaller majority in the House than we had before. George Santos was expelled and McCarthy resigned. Mike Johnson’s conference can now afford just three Republican defections on any business if Democrats vote party-line. The odds of getting to 218 on an eventual vote to impeach the president have grown considerably longer. GOP members who represent Biden-leaning districts will have nowhere to hide if and when that vote is called.

The electoral forecast has changed too. In mid-September, Biden and Trump were even in head-to-head polling and there remained some hope, however slim, that Ron DeSantis might make a late charge before Iowa. Three months later, the Republican presidential primary appears over before it’s begun. And Trump not only leads Biden consistently—his lead is growing.

Three months since that first newsletter, the president is weaker politically, the speaker is weaker politically, the House majority is weaker politically, and Trump, inexplicably, is stronger than ever.

So which side will benefit more from the newly formalized impeachment inquiry?

It should go without saying that Republicans will benefit if they end up proving that Joe Biden is, or was, on the take. His odds of reelection have already diminished to the point that any scandal would finish him.

But assume they don’t prove it and the inquiry proceeds as it’s proceeded for months, confirming repeatedly that Hunter Biden is a wastrel and a sleaze who owes everything to his surname while never quite nailing down hard evidence of corruption on his father’s part.

Whether you think voters would punish or reward Republicans for that depends on how much respect you retain for the political judgment of American voters.

Matt Lewis is something of an optimist. Last week he argued at the Daily Beast that the president should welcome impeachment as a shot in the arm for his reelection effort. After all, the political trajectory of impeachment efforts in America since Watergate has been toward greater sympathy for the target. Bill Clinton famously grew more popular with Americans during his ordeal; Donald Trump became a de facto cult leader (well, more of a de facto cult leader) due to the alleged martyrdom he suffered.

“Impeachment can now be seen not only as survivable, but as desirable,” Lewis wrote. “It can not only validate your victim status, but also prove that you are a fighter.” Joe Biden could use a little fighter-victim cred. If Republicans fail to deliver the goods, he might earn some.

Contra Lewis, Jonathan Last is a dire pessimist after my own shriveled heart. All you need to know about the good sense of the American people, he argued on Thursday, is that support for impeaching Biden is running at about the same clip or better in some polls than support for impeaching Trump did the first time around—despite the fact that not even Republican congressmen can explain precisely what he should be impeached for.

It’s a fishing expedition, transparently. And I do mean transparently:

During Trump’s first impeachment, Last notes, the excuse made for Republican voters who stuck with him was that the allegations were too convoluted to follow. There were too many moving parts, too many foreign names, too much procedural inside-baseball for a casual voter to condone ousting a president over it. (None of that was true with Trump’s second impeachment yet, oddly, Republicans stuck with him then too.) Now we have an impeachment inquiry that’s so convoluted that the investigators themselves can’t quite explain it, even to the friendliest media outlets. Yet the American people, marked by overwhelming Republican support, are more likely than not to say that impeachment proceedings should begin.

Between Lewis and Last, you can guess which view I’m more sympathetic to. But it must be said: Lewis isn’t wrong to see potential upsides for Biden from the process.

Here’s a clip from Wednesday worthy of a raised eyebrow or two.

Another thing that’s changed since September that I didn’t mention earlier is progressive affinity for the president. They’ve never been thrilled with him, but the war between Israel and Hamas has deepened the left’s ideological rift to the point that it’s plainly making Biden nervous.

And with the president on the cusp of trading additional immigration restrictions for additional Ukraine aid, things might get worse before they get better.

That’s why it feels significant that, amid the upset over Gaza and rumors of a sellout on the border, the most influential young progressive in America was at the mic this week attacking Republicans for their Hunter Biden probe. The thinner and more demagogic the House impeachment inquiry looks, the better the odds that offended leftists will grow defensive on Biden’s behalf against the common enemy and come around to supporting him again.

Republican voters aren’t the only ones capable of reflexively circling the wagons around a leader who’s being targeted by a “witch hunt,” you know.

The slender majority in the House and the realities of electoral politics also mean that an eventual impeachment vote risks becoming a fiasco for the GOP, one way or another. Assuming there’s a vote at all.

Unless House investigators find a smoking gun, front-line Republicans in swing districts will beg Johnson not to bring impeachment to the floor. That vote would be no-win for them, infuriating either the right or the left back home depending upon what they do. Johnson will be sympathetic and want to protect them, but his own weakness may force him to call the vote anyway. In the thick of a presidential campaign, with Trump hooting at him to impeach and populist antagonists calling him a coward for not “fighting,” the new speaker might feel he has no choice.

If he resists populist pressure and declines to call a vote, the entire inquiry will look like a sham in retrospect and/or a vindication of Biden’s innocence. Johnson will probably lose his job. If he calls the vote, Republicans in purple districts will walk the plank and might pay with their own jobs in November. A few might even refuse to vote for impeachment, believing the evidence is too weak, which would lead to the most absurd possible outcome: The impeachment vote fails, humiliating the party and igniting ferocious recriminations on the right with Election Day bearing down.

The whole thing could blow up in their faces. We should expect it, frankly. This is, after all, the GOP.

I don’t expect it, though.

The key point of September’s newsletter remains true today: Because impeachment has been normalized in the past 25 years—in particular, because mindless tribalism as a proper reaction to impeachment has been normalized—the new House inquiry will almost certainly be shrugged off by voters as just another form of Beltway bloodsport.

Democratic House majorities impeach Republican presidents and Republican House majorities impeach Democratic presidents. That’s how politics works now. Tell ‘em, Chris Stirewalt:

No wonder the polling on this impeachment probe looks (sort of) similar to the polling on Trump’s two impeachments. Most voters are partisans, and partisans now understand what the tribe expects of them when the president’s hold on power is threatened. Especially Republican partisans, who’ve had lots of practice.

Impeachment is the highest of high-stakes battles. But as it’s grown more partisan, it’s also become strangely low-stakes: Having recently been through two Senate impeachment trials and acquittals, Americans surely realize by now how improbable it is that two-thirds of the chamber will ever vote to remove a president. Trump didn’t come close to reaching 67 votes to convict after January 6, and the case for ousting him then was as compelling as one could want. That trial confirmed that impeachment is functionally an empty gesture—nothing more than “censure on steroids.”

Biden likewise won’t be convicted by a Senate which his own party controls. So why should voters care about this latest empty gesture? They don’t, I presume. Most are likely treating polling questions about the impeachment inquiry as a simple proxy for whom they trust less, the president or House Republicans.

Even so, there are ways in which Biden and his party might be meaningfully hurt by the investigation. Politico touched on one a few days ago that seems underappreciated:

Joe Biden’s concern about his surviving son has only grown since he took office, according to aides and confidants—five in total—all of whom were granted anonymity to speak about private conversations.

The White House has long stressed that the president does not interfere in matters before the Justice Department. But privately, fears about the upcoming campaign and potential criminal trial have become an ever-present weight on the president, according to those close to him. The elder Biden has told friends he worries that his son could even backslide into addiction.

“You can see it in his eyes, and you can see his shoulders slump,” said one confidant of the president in describing a recent conversation. “He’s so worried about Hunter. And we’re worried it could consume him.”

Biden recently admitted that he isn’t sure he’d be running for reelection if Trump weren’t back on the ballot this year. That’s not something a man who’s eager to campaign for a second term would say. His declining polling against the Republican frontrunner must have him feeling even less enthusiastic lately, whether he admits it or not.

Now he’s going to watch the courts and Congress expose more of his son’s unethical and possibly illegal chicanery. If there’s any chance of him withdrawing before the general election, if only to lower the heat around Hunter, one would think that chance has grown since the impeachment inquiry was formalized and his son began giving press conferences outside the Capitol. We’re a little closer today to the Democratic Party being thrown into chaos this summer than we were a few weeks ago.

The inquiry does something else for Republicans. It helps them counterprogram the reporting on Trump’s autocratic ambitions for a second term, a storyline that will dominate the campaign with help from the candidate himself.

“That doesn’t make sense,” you might think. “Unproven allegations of corruption against Biden don’t ‘balance’ the threat of authoritarianism from a man who tried to stage a coup once before and may yet go to prison for it.” Getting wary voters to take a chance on Trump 2.0 is less a matter of rational persuasion, though, than creating a sense of moral permission for them to do something they already want to do.

Lots of swing voters who miss the economy of 2019 and traditional conservatives who miss seeing their party win will be searching next year for excuses to justify voting for Trump again. They know they shouldn’t—they’ve seen the January 6 footage too—but the heart wants what it wants. What they need is moral reassurance that they’re not betraying their country by giving in to temptation.

“The insurrection was bad but taking bribes from the Chinese with your son as a middleman is bad too” is that reassurance. You don’t need to prove that the bribe happened, as you would if we were having a rational debate. All you need to do is raise some official-sounding doubt about it that leads motivated reasoners to conclude that both sides are too civically compromised to allow civic interests to influence their vote.

For Republican officials and right-wing media, the next 11 months will be a sustained exercise in drawing moral equivalence between the two nominees. If it’s a problem that one of them has two impeachments to his record, isn’t it also a problem that the alternative has one?

Or is being looked at for one, at least?

In the end, the safe prediction about fallout from the impeachment inquiry is “LOL nothing matters.”

That’s usually the correct pundit take in the Trump era. Nothing matters.

A few things do matter, like inflation and two major wars raging in which the U.S. is all-in logistically for one side. But impeachment? The realistic worst-case scenario for Biden is acquittal by the Senate on a 51-49 party-line vote, a result that won’t move anyone off their priors. The realistic best-case scenario for him is that the House inquiry just sort of … lingers, with lots of suspicion tossed around but without ever reaching a floor vote. Which also won’t move anyone off their priors, even it makes producers and consumers of right-wing infotainment mad.

There’s also a funniest-case scenario, in which Biden drops out of the race in order to spare Hunter further scrutiny from Republicans, is replaced at the Democratic convention by some generic normie candidate, and the normie candidate obliterates Trump in November.

But that one’s not very realistic.

The only thing that’s likely to “matter” in the long run from the current House investigation is how it further diminishes impeachment in the public imagination. That seems counterintuitive given that we’re less than three years removed from the most meritorious impeachment in American history, but it really isn’t. It’s because the charges at Trump’s second trial were so grave and warranted that the GOP has a motive to pursue less credible charges against Biden. The more inherently flimsy and partisan the process seems, the more even a righteous impeachment like the one that followed January 6 can be dismissed as inescapably “political”—and therefore inconsequential.

It’s enough to make you wonder whether House Republicans would have pursued this to begin with if the target of that impeachment weren’t on the ballot this coming fall. But he will be, thanks to their voters. The heart wants what it wants.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.