Two quick things about the possibility that Republicans will mount a futile effort to impeach President Barack Obama. This idea seems to be getting attention, perhaps because the South Dakota Republican Party officially adopted impeachment as its position this week. Or perhaps it’s because torture apologist Andrew McCarthy has a new book advocating it. Short version: Republicans are being hugely irresponsible, but so far it’s only at the rhetorical level.

First, there are a lot of real-life Republicans, including some members of Congress, who have been threatening impeachment since January 2009. For Republicans, the lesson of the disastrous impeachment of President Bill Clinton seems to have been that the normal thing to do when they they disagree with the president is to impeach him. Of all the forms of constitutional hardball we’ve seen from Republicans, this is perhaps the most immediately dangerous: Presidents can’t just ignore impeachment, and presidential attention is limited – which means that energy devoted to fighting even a totally spurious impeachment effort deprives other responsibilities, including national security, of presidential attention.

The truth is that if Republicans don’t want to be considered a party of irresponsible nutjobs, they should put considerable distance between themselves and those who rant about impeachment.

Second: Whatever their yahoos may say, Republicans haven’t impeached Obama, and at least at the congressional level (which, after all, is what ultimately counts), they aren’t threatening to do so in any real sense. To the best of my knowledge, no one in the House of Representatives has gone as far as to formally introduce articles of impeachment. So plenty of bluster, but nothing more.

I’ve been wrong about this. At my old blog I ran a contest asking who would drop those articles and when they would do it. More than three years later, the correct entry is still “no one.”

So, yeah, there are a lot of irresponsible Republicans out there, and another large bunch who know better but won’t do anything about it. Not to mention that the party did go through with a spurious impeachment not all that long ago. So it’s not as if I think they’re getting an unfair rap on this. But at the same time, what about those who believe impeachment is inevitable? Maybe it’ll happen, but there’s a huge distance between a few delegates to state party conventions and a few loudmouth talk show types yammering about it and the U.S. House of Representatives actually doing it.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.