The titular "impeachment," of course, was declared "off the table" by incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and off the table it stayed, though progressives (myself obviously included) enjoyed fulminating about it for the next couple years. Less known, perhaps, is that Democrats similarly decided the impeachment of Ronald Reagan was off the table. Bill Clinton likewise declined to prosecute the crimes of the first Bush Administration. And President Obama has famously declared that he prefers looking forward, not backward, even as the rest of the world demands accountability for the Lesser Bush Administration's crimes against humanity. What have the Democrats ever gained from keeping such matters off our national table? Perhaps more to the point, what is it they prefer to keep on it?
The point is, we don’t have a parliamentary system; we have a lopsided Rube Goldberg contraption that is the result of a series of pitched (sometimes lethal) battles and compromises between Tories and Reformers over the past few centuries, with occasional input from an aroused citizenry. Under this system, the optimal legal method for removing a president from office is called impeachment. Last month I argued that it would be better to hold off on any impeachment proceedings against George Walker Bush and Richard Bruce Cheney. But the truth is, I feel strongly both ways.
The argument in favor of waiting is that it would take up too much energy to pursue impeachment and that it would be unlikely to succeed. You would need the votes of sixteen Republican Senators to convict and remove the executives from office, and to say the least, that cohort has not shown a strong tendency towards holding their officeholders accountable. In the meantime, observers on both the right and the left are rightly skeptical that much good will flow from the new Democratic majority, who have a limited amount of time to prove otherwise.
Thus, I argued, it would be better to pursue investigations likely to turn up evidence of additional impeachable offenses, and wait for Bush and Cheney to commit still further offenses, after which the case for impeachment (and the resulting public anger) may well be strong enough to flip sixteen GOP votes. But just typing out the words “wait for Bush and Cheney to commit still further offenses” leads to the case for the contrary view.
The argument against waiting is that the law is the law. Bush and Cheney have already committed impeachable offenses, and the leaders of the House and Senate have taken oaths to uphold the Constitution, and not just when it’s politically feasible. The president and vice president are dangerous, fanatical and incompetent, and have already proven themselves willing to inflict grave damage to our nation’s environment, fiscal soundness, international standing, and rule of law. Preventing them from further fouling our nest cannot wait.
Moreover, as the White House continues to run amok in Iraq, finding sixteen Republicans becomes less inconceivable. The old guard GOP foreign policy establishment gave it their best shot at talking sense to this crew, and were rudely rebuffed. A recent issue of Newsweek offered an astonishingly cynical insider’s view of how the Cheney Regency responded to the Baker-Hamilton commission’s work. They went into full-on political crisis mode in order to find a way to give the appearance that they cared. That is, they rejected beforehand any possibility of taking the commission’s advice, and turned the full force and power of their political apparatus towards constructing a Potemkin Village of concern for the possibility of any course other than more of the same bloody insanity they’ve been pursuing from Day One.
(At this late date, of course, there’s nothing particularly surprising about the utter amoral soullessness of the administration’s Nero-esque indifference to the hell they’ve created in Iraq. It is rather remarkable, though, that somebody thought there was something to be gained by leaking this strategery to the press.)
Ah, but just typing the phrase “finding sixteen Republicans” leads back to the case for the opposite view. Yes, the madness of King George has cost them their grip on legislative power, and he does appear resolved to lead them ever deeper into the mire. It may well be in their self-interest to be rid of him, let alone in the interests of the nation and the planet. And yet: which sixteen? There are no more Republicans like Howard Baker or Elliot Richardson or Barry Goldwater, willing to put their loyalty to the Constitution over their loyalty to their party. Even if you could settle for those willing to put loyalty to their party over loyalty to George W. Bush, few such pragmatists come to mind.
Um, Spector, Hagel, Snowe, Lugar, Warner, er, help me out here. Even if you add in a few who are looking over their shoulder at the next election, like Smith of Oregon and Collins of Maine, it’s hard to do the math for a coalition of conscience. Moreover, while it might be in their interest to get Cheney and Bush’s hands off the levers of power, it’s certainly not anything close to their desire for Nancy Pelosi’s hands to replace them.
With that in mind, some inside the Beltway have whispered of a grand compromise, in which Pelosi would temporarily step aside in order for some doddering bipartisan eminence grise to be elected Speaker in order to succeed to a caretaker presidency following the agreed-upon impeachment deal. The “doddering” part is crucial, as the deal could only work politically if the new president – and the veep of the opposite party he agrees to appoint – have no possible interest in running for the office in 2008.
This, of course, is in the realm of fantasy – until we all find ourselves nipple-deep in the quicksand. Sure, the list of political figures more reasonable than Bush and Cheney is a long one. But if agreeing on our nation’s best interests were that easy, we wouldn’t have come to this juncture in the first place. Under the circumstances, then, it looks like the beatings will continue until the morale improves.
Which, naturally, takes us back to the case for giving it our best shot. Maybe the GOP will listen to reason, and, more likely, they won’t. But it isn’t even necessary for impeachment to succeed in order for it to show results. As the Republicans proved, a well-coordinated series of scandal publicity, culminating in an impeachment, can seriously hobble the Administration’s ability to pursue its policy. The Clinton White House was more or less paralyzed politically from mid-1997 to early 1999, with most of their political focus on staving off Tom DeLay’s relentless drive toward a trial.
Of course, the Republicans’ impeachment campaign was wildly unpopular, and ended up costing them seats in the 1998 midterms. In the end, even though they held the Senate, their evidence against Clinton was so flimsy that they couldn’t even muster 50 votes for conviction, let alone 67. But here’s the thing: impeachment of Bush is not wildly unpopular. Over the past year or two, polls have shown support from the low forties to the low fifties for pursuing impeachment if the evidence warrants.
And boy, does the evidence warrant. It was an impeachable offense to divert funding from the war in Afghanistan to the upcoming war in Iraq. It was an impeachable offense to defy the FISA law and institute warrantless wiretaps. It was an impeachable offense to lie to the Congress with Those Sixteen Words in the State of the Union address. It was an impeachable offense to defraud the nation into an illegal war with cherry-picked, stove-piped misuse of intelligence data. And it was an impeachable offense to authorize the torture of detainees, even if the slimy 109th Congress legalized it retroactively.
How can we afford not to impeach, if we want to get our republic back? Win or lose, we have to make the case that no man is above the law, that these crimes are unacceptable, that we will take our government back.
Okay, that sounds pretty good to me. But in the end, it doesn’t matter what I think, or what you think. The politicians in Washington brought us to this crucible, and it’s up to them to resolve the crisis. And just typing out those words gives scant hope that justice will be done. Maybe the best we can hope for is that they may well end up following the advice given last time around, and muddle along until things come to a head. Or not. And in the meantime, the planet heats, the Middle East burns, and the treasury drains away.
Couldn’t we just impeach them all?
[UPDATE: The slimy 110th Congress compounded the work of the 109th by retroactively legalizing Bush's FISA violations - with the invaluable assistance of then-Senator Barack Obama.]