Everyone is talking impeachment this week. Some notes.

Forty years ago, the House Judiciary Committee was finishing up its impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon. Since then, each second-term president has faced some sort of — at least semi-serious — impeachment talk: Ronald Reagan over Iran-Contra; George W. Bush over torture and executive overreach; Barack Obama over being Barack Obama. Oh, and Bill Clinton …

It isn’t hard to draw the conclusion that the threshold for serious impeachment talk keeps get lower. Iran-Contra was a bigger deal than the Lewinsky scandal. That, in turn, may not have been bigger than the case against Bush in an absolute sense (particularly Bush’s involvement in torture, which many Bush supporters still haven’t denounced). But it’s worth remembering that Clinton’s scandal was backed by a (nominally nonpartisan) independent counsel report dumped on Congress, along with widespread, bipartisan agreement that the president had seriously misbehaved. Impeachment was a wildly inappropriate response, but it’s not as if Congress made up the whole thing. And then we reach the bottom of the barrel with the Obama impeachment talk, which for the most part doesn’t even bother with specific accusations of wrongdoing, let alone evidence or proof or arguments.

It’s worth recalling that in July and August 1974 impeachment was very close to a consensus opinion. The first two articles approved by the Judiciary Committee — abuse of power and obstruction of justice — won the support of two essential swing groups: Southern Democrats, who were Nixon supporters most of the time, and moderate to liberal Republicans, who might have stuck with the president for partisan reasons. At that point, however, in late July, most conservative Republicans stuck with Nixon, though one defected on Article II.

However, the Judiciary Committee’s deliberations and votes took place concurrently with the last great court battle of Watergate, which meant the committee voted without knowing the contents of the “smoking gun” tape that showed Nixon had been lying to the nation and that he was clearly guilty of not only abuse of power but also continuing obstruction of justice. When the contents of the tape were made public, Nixon’s chief defender on the committee abandoned him. Had Nixon not resigned, only a handful of ultraloyalists in either chamber would have voted against impeachment and conviction.1

Democrats were right in 1987 and 2007 to reject the notion of a partisan impeachment effort. It’s good that House Republicans have apparently (and belatedly) decided to do the same now, though their performance has been pretty shoddy to this point. And we still haven’t had strong statements from House leaders directly taking on people from their own side, including members of the House who have flirted or worse with the notion. Instead, House Republicans have apparently decided to pretend that the White House started it last week. Not to mention they are still proceeding with their poorly thought-out lawsuit.

Impeachment is a constitutional mess best reserved only for cases in which no other recourse is available. That was true in 1974. It hasn’t really been true since, and it’s not remotely close the case now. Responsible Republicans should stand up and say so, even if it might cost them a bit with the crazies in their party.

1 And even then, only a small sampling of the White House tapes had been exposed. Seen in context, the “smoking gun” tape was just a hint of the evidence of how thoroughly Nixon had deceived his supporters during the long investigations and impeachment drama.

[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.