A Dark Theory About the Sudden Impeachmania Outbreak

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 30 2014 5:37 PM

A Dark Theory About the Sudden Impeachmania Outbreak

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Serious stuff

Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images

Yesterday I filed this piece about the amusing and predictable politics of "impeachment talk." Many conservatives, including some members of Congress, have chin-stroked about impeaching Barack Obama for this-or-that high crime, such-or-so misdemeanor. Democrats, who have been somewhat disappointed in the lack of foot-in-mouthery from this year's Republican candidates (there are reasons for that), have started needling the GOP about this sentiment. On Tuesday morning John Boehner called the impeachment jabber a "Democratic scam," and coverage has basically flowed from there.

Not all of the coverage. In my piece, it may appear that National Journal's scold-in-residence Ron Fournier started criticizing the Democrats after Boehner spoke. That's not what I meant. Fournier filed his piece before Boehner launched the counterattack, and (as I write) Fournier mostly argues that this fight is beneath the parties.

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But the worm really turned last night and this morning. Jonathan Topaz captured the scene on Morning Joe, where MSNBC's least liberal hosts often scoff at the travails of the White House, and where Chuck Todd went brutal.

This is the most cynical — Boehner’s up there with this ridiculous lawsuit, Josh Earnest sitting at the podium trying to tick off names of, "Look at Republicans who want impeachment" — it’s not serious. The lawsuit’s not serious. The impeachment talk’s not serious. This is playground stuff. This is embarrassing.

Definitely not serious, but sometimes being "unserious" is no impediment for an issue that breaks into the mainstream. I learned this the hard (well, mostly fun) way from 2008 to 2011, when I enjoyed a side gig in chronicling the adventures of the "birther" movement. My very first article for Slate, before I joined the staff, was a bemused look at the birthers and their crazy but real quest to prove that Obama was illegitimate, and could not be president. Nobody could have conceived that, by 2011, this theory would be so widespread that Donald Trump could browbeat the president into releasing his long-form birth certificate. And once Obama had done so, the re-elect started selling mugs with grainy photos of the document and the slogan "Made in the USA." 

Did that mean that Obama urged on the birthers in order to make his opponents look crazy? Well, yeah—after they'd already established themselves. The White House is doing the same thing now. National Review's Charles C. Cooke has even speculated that Obama is kook-baiting the right, and churning the conversation in Washington, for a reason.

Still, is the White House acting as grown-up and serious as the adults of the press corps might want it to? No. The scolds get to keep on scolding; the White House gets to keep on kook-baiting. 

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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