January 31, 2012 3:28 pm ET - by Jamison Foser
If you're surprised that Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist raised the possibility of impeaching President Obama if he doesn't extend the Bush tax cuts, you shouldn't be. Norquist pursues the impeachment of Democratic presidents like a dog chases a car: enthusiastically, and with no regard for the consequences of his actions.
In 1997 — before the Monica Lewinsky story broke — Norquist was part of a group of conservative activists who took seriously then-Rep. Bob Barr's proposal to impeach then-President Bill Clinton. Once the Lewinsky story broke the following year, Norquist, a close ally of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, argued tirelessly for Clinton's impeachment. Even after the Senate declined to remove Clinton from office in 1999, Norquist suggested the absurd saga might not be over, and that there was still time to impeach Clinton again before his term was over.
In early 1998, National Review reported that Gingrich "associates" believed Norquist was responsible for a report that the speaker was thinking of impeaching both Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Norquist denied that he was behind the report — but emphasized that it was "absolutely essential" to remove Gore from office as well as Clinton:
Since Elizabeth Drew claimed that Speaker Gingrich has been discussing the idea of impeaching President Clinton and Vice-President Gore with his advisers, Gingrich has told conservative legal pundit Victoria Toensing that the claim was (her words) "false, absolutely false"; and his press secretary, Christina Martin, has ridiculed the idea of dual impeachments. Drew sticks by her story. [...]
Some associates of Gingrich are fingering Grover Norquist, the ubiquitous leader of Americans for Tax Reform, as Drew's source. Norquist denies it—"I haven't spoken to her in a long time"—and says he has never advised the Speaker on this subject. But he adds that it is absolutely essential that if Clinton were somehow to be removed from office because of scandal, Gore would have to go too—for the obvious partisan reason, and because Gore is involved in the important, i.e. non-sexual, scandals. "It is self-evident to any intelligent person on the Hill that this is the way to approach this. . . . Our goal is not to remove Clinton any more than it was to remove Gorbachev. It is to eliminate the whole corrupt system of which Clinton and Gore are a part."
Throughout the year, Norquist cheered on the Gingrich-led drive for impeachment, ignoring legal and constitutional scholars who said there was no basis for it, and the public, which wanted no part of it. Norquist was certain that with Clinton weakened politically, Republicans would enjoy large gains in that year's mid-term elections:
Conservative activist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, is gleefully sounding the death knell for new Democrats -- who include such moderates as Walnut Creek's Ellen Tauscher -- now that their leader is crippled.
"The 10 to 20 Democrats in the House and the three to five in the Senate who are going to lose in November are the people who ran in rural, suburban, Southern and Western districts who can no longer survive as those districts move Republican and their party is seen as hewing left," Norquist said.
Norquist, who has close ties with GOP House leaders, also predicts a more aggressive Republican agenda on the Hill. "Nobody is afraid that Bill Clinton will get up and give five speeches and change the topic of debate," Norquist said. "Before, a few Clinton speeches could move voters. And for Republicans to get through the Clinton message cost millions of dollars in advertising. This time around, that just isn't an option." [San Francisco Chronicle, 9/17/98]
Instead, after Gingrich orchestrated a last-minute ad blitz attacking Clinton, Democrats gained five seats in the House — the first time the incumbent president's party had gained seats in a sixth-year election since 1822. Norquist, who had egged on the scandal talk, and crowed that the Lewinsky story would be an electoral anchor around Democrats' necks, suddenly changed his tune:
He masterminded the last-minute GOP television ad campaign that alluded to Mr. Clinton's sex-ad-lies scandal but got criticized publicly by some GOP lawmakers for risking a voter backlash as a result.
Grover Norquist, a close Gingrich ally attending the rally here last night, remarked that the Clinton sex scandals so dominated the media attention and public dialogue that Republicans were unable to talk about "traditional GOP issues such as less taxes, less government intrusiveness." [Washington Times, 11/4/98]
Though the reckless impeachment effort he had championed alienated the public, and though his political assessments had repeatedly turned out to be exactly wrong, Norquist kept at it. When the Senate finally put an end to the year-long charade by acquitting Clinton in February of 1999, Norquist still couldn't accept that his quest to impeach Clinton was over, saying:
The Democrats went lock step through this and they may think it's over but I'm not so sure. Bill Clinton has no hidden virtues. And you never know who out there might turn state's evidence next. So I think no Republican is going to wake up in six months and say, "Wish I hadn't cast that vote." But a lot of Democrats might. As someone pointed out the other day, there's been a Clinton scandal about every other month so far. Well, we've still got 20 odd months to go. [New York Times, 2/14/99]
It may be tempting to dismiss Norquist's talk of impeaching Obama over a policy disagreement as a stray bit of hyperbole; it would, after all, be a grotesque misuse of a process intended to address only the most serious of wrongdoing. Unfortunately, Norquist's history suggests he's frighteningly serious.
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