David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for TomPaine.com. Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). Read his blog at http://www.davidcorn.com.
In 1868, the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Andrew Johnson. The president was a Democrat. The House was controlled by Republicans.
In 1974, the House judiciary committee voted to impeach President Richard Nixon. The president was a Republican. The House was controlled by Democrats.
In 1998, the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Bill Clinton. The president was a Democrat. The House was controlled by Republicans.
See a pattern here?
Yet, a band of left-of-center activists and a group of Democratic members of Congress are now calling for the impeachment of George W. Bush and acting as if this is a campaign that can actually succeed. A recent email from one pro-impeachment group declares, "Let's make impeachment our highest priority this spring—victory is possible!!" It scoffs at Democrats who dismiss impeachment as unrealistic and proclaims them the enemy.
There is nothing wrong with arguing that a president who overstated the case for war to whip up popular support, all for a misadventure that has led to the deaths of thousands, deserves the ultimate penalty. But neither is there anything wrong with recognizing political realities in assessing political strategies. Republicans don't impeach Republicans and Democrats don't impeach Democrats. So why waste time demanding that the Republicans politically assassinate the leader of their party?
This is not to suggest that the opposition ought to allow Bush's misdeeds to go unnoticed. In the March issue of Harper's, Lewis Lapham (who I much respect and for whom I worked many years ago) has a cover story entitled, "The Case for Impeachment." At the start of the piece, he relates a conversation he had with Representative John Conyers, the senior Democrat on the House judiciary committee, who last December introduced a resolution in the House calling for the formation of a "select committee to investigate the administration's intent to go to war before congressional authorization, manipulation of pre-war intelligence, encouraging and countenancing torture, retaliating against critics and to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment." What, Lapham asked Conyers, did the congressman hope to gain by this exercise? "What would you have me do?" Conyers replied. "Grumble and complain? Make cynical jokes? Throw up my hands and say that under the circumstances nothing can be done. At least I can muster the facts, establish a record, tell the story that ought to be front-page news."
Let it be noted that grumbling, complaining and making cynical jokes can be worthwhile endeavors. Certainly, the same goes for establishing the record and telling the story. In that regard, Conyers's staff has produced a 182-page report that thoroughly describes much of the serious wrongdoing conducted by the Bush administration related to the Iraq war. But why did Conyers—who has more recently been accused by three former staffers of having forced them to perform personal tasks such as babysitting—have to peg his effort to the explosive I-word? Of course, Democrats ought to be calling for accountability and investigation into the prewar use of intelligence and similar matters.
Calling for impeachment—given the history noted above (and most everything we know about human nature and politics)—cannot escape the obvious slap-down: impeachment is a dream; it is so far-fetched a prospect that it raises questions about the sensibility and political judgment of anyone who suggests it be adopted as a real-life goal. A debating point, perhaps—but not an operating premise.
A possible reply to this slap-down is that other political movements that were fueled by high-minded principles, not pragmatism, did manage to succeed against the odds—the civil rights movement, the movement against the Vietnam War—and that those who accept the limits of conventional thinking condemn themselves (and others) to the status quo.
But—let's be real—those movements took years to gain momentum. And, in the case of the civil rights movement, there was much tactical strategizing along the way that was shaped by hard-headed practical considerations. The impeachment of George W. Bush is not a cause for the ages. He will be out of the White House in thirty-four months. Yes, that is plenty of time in which additional damage can be done. But it's not much time for changing the fundamental political consciousness of the nation—and, more importantly, that of Congress. Bush's approval ratings are indeed in the tank. Yet, is the public clamoring for impeachment—say, in the way it clamored for port terminals that are not owned by Arabs? And can anyone see a revolutionary change in attitude sweeping through the House and Senate that would permit the Republicans in charge to consider booting Bush for even a nanosecond?
The current crop of House Republicans—most of whom hold safe seats in gerrymandered districts—are not going to impeach Bush. Not this year. Not next year. They still support the war and, for the most part, accept the wireless wiretapping Bush ordered. These are party loyalists who won't even hold a hearing on Halliburton. What could conceivably turn them around in the next two years? Bad news from Iraq? Perhaps public sentiment could become so anti-Bush that House GOPers might feel pressure. But, once more, consider those gerrymandered districts. And remember that politicians—contrary to everything you know—do not always adjust their actions according to public opinion polls. Republicans pursued the impeachment of Clinton despite the polls that showed impeachment was unpopular.
So what's the impeachment game plan? Stir up public outrage to such an extent that Republicans—scared silly by a surge of people power—cannibalize Bush? That seems a quite bit tougher to achieve than the more down-to-earth goal of winning the 15 seats the Democrats require to gain control of the House. (And picking up those seats is already a tall order.) Impeachment certainly has a visceral appeal that some may not find in that mundane and tired ol' cause of let's-take-back-Congress. But unless you have a fanciful imagination, it's difficult to envision the former without the latter. And if your goal is impeachment, why focus on that controversial aim rather than on achieving the political power necessary for waging such a drastic step? The potential costs of an impeachment campaign are clear. It could cause Democrats to appear marginal or out-of-touch. (Sorry, that's how much of the world works.) And it could create a wedge issue—for Democrats. That is, it could lead to division among Democrats in the months before the 2006 elections. (Democrats.com, an Internet-based activist group that passionately champions impeachment, has been attacking Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean for supposedly trying to smother impeachment fever among Democrats.) As for the benefits—well, if Bush is not impeached before the next election, what are they?
One need not champion impeachment to whack the president. Consider Senator Russell Feingold. On Monday he introduced a resolution to censure Bush. "The president," Feingold said on the Senate floor, "authorized an illegal program to spy on American citizens on American soil, and then misled Congress and the public about he existence and legality of that program. It is up to this body to reaffirm that rule of law by condemning the president's actions." There is no chance that this resolution will be adopted by the Republican-controlled Senate. But Feingold has taken a stand and provided a rallying point for those (in and out of the Senate) who share his belief that Bush trampled the Constitution by okaying warrantless wiretapping. There's a realistic way to defy political realities and an unrealistic way to do so. It's no sellout or surrender to recognize the difference.
Lapham elegantly concludes his article with these words: "It is the business of the Congress to prevent the president from doing more damage than he's already done to the people, interests, health, well-being, safety, good name and reputation of the United States—to cauterize the wound and stem the flows of money, stupidity and blood." In theory, the grand man (and wonderful writer) is right. But the Republicans in charge of Congress have been partners with Bush every bloody, stupid, costly step along the way. You may as well ask them to impeach themselves. For that matter, you may as well call on Bush and Dick Cheney to recognize their disastrous mistakes and resign. Let's remember that politics is about gaining and using power—and that gravity does apply.