DES MOINES — Across Iowa this week, in storefront Republican Party offices festooned with campaign posters, and photos of Ronald Reagan, and papier-mâché elephant busts, and illustrated quotes from Ronald Reagan, and red-white-and-blue streamers, and stylized cartoons of Ronald Reagan, civic-minded Iowans lined up to get their pictures taken with Sen. Rand Paul and politely ask him why he hasn't yet managed to impeach President Obama.
It seemed like a perfectly reasonable question. After all, the Republican voters greeting the Kentucky senator had, invariably, just finished listening to him rail against the Imperial Presidency of Barack Obama and warn that the White House's eagerness to circumvent Congress represented a dire threat to the nation. Everywhere Paul went on his three-day, ten-stop swing through the Hawkeye State, he sounded the alarm bell. In Okoboji, Paul complained that "the president has ordained himself and he's just going to do whatever he wants." In Sioux City, he declared that Obama's "petulance" and "arrogance" threatened to create a "significant constitutional crisis." And in Urbandale, he said the president was acting "more like a king" who's "going to give royal edicts" that imperil the very "fabric of the republic." Over and over again, Paul made the case that Obama's disregard for the separation of powers was unprecedented and dangerous and needed to be stopped at once.
But he stopped short of calling for impeachment.
When Paul was asked by reporters Wednesday what he made of the impeachment talk emanating from some quarters of the political class in recent weeks, he offered a long, nuanced, see-where-you're-coming-from nod to the conservatives who held such a position, before finally confessing, "I don't support it."
Paul is straining to navigate a dilemma that's proving increasingly tricky for serious-minded Republican leaders across the country: They recognize that much of the recent impeachment buzz in the media is being fed by national Democrats in a cynical attempt to raise money from their liberal base and cast conservatives as kooks and cranks — yet they also have to reckon with the incontrovertible fact that a significant number of Republican voters believe the president's misdeeds are, in fact, impeachable offenses.
A CNN/ORC poll released late last month found that 57% of Republicans nationwide support impeaching Obama. And here in Iowa, Shawn Dietz, a GOP state Senate candidate who attended one of Paul's speeches, said many conservative voters are frustrated that congressional Republicans aren't aggressively going after impeachment.
"I think too often they think politically," Dietz said of Republicans in Congress. "We have to be bold enough to say, 'This is unconstitutional, and the political fallout be what it is, we have to do everything. As representatives who have taken oaths to uphold the Constitution, we have to follow that the Constitution has prescribed, up to and including impeachment.'"
Paul, of course, knows that joining the impeachment movement would be devastating to the political brand he has been fastidiously developing ahead of 2016 — that of the inclusive, big-tent Republican willing to work with Democrats while still clinging to his conservative-libertarian principles. It would also probably damage the GOP's chances of taking back the Senate if party leaders are widely seen embracing it.
But the current fervor of the Republican foot soldiers, however misguided he may believe it to be, is at least partly a consequence of his own persistent battle cries. For years, Paul has been a leading voice in his party condemning what he sees as the Obama administration's gross abuses of executive power — from the NSA domestic surveillance program, to the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, to immigration policy. His arguments have helped provide the substantive underpinning to the howling of the conservative fever swamps, in which talk radio hosts and right-wing bloggers rake in ratings and page views with frenzied talk of kicking Obama out of office. For those voters who have found Paul's urgent denunciation of the president's lawlessness compelling, it doesn't take a huge leap of logic to arrive at impeachment as a plausible solution.
Even as Paul works to broaden his coalition of supporters to include people of color and college students, he seems reluctant to put too much distance between himself and this contingency of his greatest admirers. While no one in the GOP's prospective 2016 Republican field is actively calling for impeachment, Sen. Ted Cruz, probably Paul's most serious competition for the conservative base in a Republican primary, has paid lip service to the idea (while conceding that it probably won't work).
When conservative voters press Paul to explain why he doesn't support impeachment despite all his ominous rhetoric about Obama trampling on the Constitution, he is ready with sophisticated reasoning.
"People come up and they say, 'Why won't you impeach him? He's done this and this and this,'" Paul said. "I try to explain that a lot of the bills that were written give latitude to both sides. So, for example, the Affordable Care Act, which I wasn't there to vote for, would have voted no on, and think was a bad piece of legislation — nevertheless, it passed. It's law. And in the law, it says in 180 different places, the Secretary of Health and Human Services may do 'X.' It leaves a lot of latitude for the executive branch to write the law."
"I think there's enough of a debate that a court has to decide, and it is being adjudicated in a court," Paul continued, referring to a lawsuit being brought by House Republicans against Obama. "I think when you do impeachment, it is a judgment call, but it's talking about high crimes and misdemeanors. And I think most people think that a dispute over the interpretation of the legislation doesn't rise to that level."
He hastened to add, "Some people do, though..."
This explanation shifts just enough blame off the White House and onto Congress as to logically justify his softer stance to conservatives — and he frequently tries to toughen it up by mentioning that, in addition to the House's Affordable Care Act lawsuit, he has helped file a class-action lawsuit against Obama over NSA surveillance.
But when a man in Council Bluffs asked him this week what Republicans could do to rein in Obama's use of executive power, Paul admitted that lawsuits had their limitations. "The courts have almost uniformly said legislators have no standing," he told the man at one point, before saying he still believed it was worth pursuing.
This is the sort of careful posturing that political clichés were written for; Rand Paul is threading the needle, walking a tightrope. He is also, apparently, confusing Rep. Steve King.
The conservative Iowa congressman, who spent Monday campaigning across the state with Paul, told reporters (after the senator had left an event) that he believed they were on the same page with impeachment.
"What I've said is I want to discourage the president from taking actions that create a constitutional crisis," said King, who has argued that the House should pursue impeachment if Obama tries to address immigration with an executive order. "If he does that, we can't take anything off the table. I don't know that Rand Paul is much different on that from me."
The strained nature of Paul's position on the issue may not ultimately matter. Calls for impeachment on the right haven't yet reached a fever pitch, and they may never get to that point, despite Democrats' best efforts. As long as impeachment doesn't become a conservative litmus test, Paul and other high-profile Republicans trying to hang on to their credibility can safely agree to disagree with their more bloodthirsty constituents and colleagues.
Still, as long as Obama is in office, it remains possible at any moment for the undercurrent of urgency on the right to suddenly change the dynamic.
On Monday afternoon, at the Iowa GOP Sioux City Victory Office, Paul stood dutifully for pictures with a slow-moving line of Iowans. A few feet away, King was chatting with an older couple.
"You've got six months to turn this country around," said a man in orthopedic sneakers, his voice rising. "After that, it's over." When King smiled politely, the man insisted, "I'm serious!"
The woman placed a hand on his arm to calm him down. "Now, now," she said, "don't get worked up."
"I'm just telling him the truth," the man said. "It's getting bad!"
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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