Impeachment At Our Peril
December 08, 2006
David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for TomPaine.com. Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and the co-author, along with Michael Isikoff, of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War. Read his blog at http://www.davidcorn.com.
Let's stipulate three propositions. First, George W. Bush led the nation into an elective war with false information and false assurances. Second, Bush acted with reckless abandon and immense neglect by inadequately planning for what would come after the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq. Third, Bush botched key decisions regarding the war, while refusing to acknowledge the hellish reality his invasion created. As a consequence, thousands of Americans are dead, as are hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Impeachment would be a suitable punishment for such actions. Still, congressional Democrats ought to resist the calls to engage in constitutional patricide.
The decision to pursue impeachment is a political decision. After all, everything justifiable is not always wise. There is a substantive argument for impeachment against a president who has misguided the country into a disastrous war. But the matter of impeachment, like most issues in the real world, cannot be considered in a vacuum. The key question is not whether there is a case, but whether it should be prosecuted. The Democrats would do so at their peril—and at risk to their agenda, which includes stopping the war in Iraq.
The Democrats could not mount an impeachment campaign without it becoming the defining act of the new Democratic era on Capitol Hill. Just as Bush is now defined by the war, the Dems would be identified wholly with impeachment—no matter what else they did. And impeachment would be depicted (and seen) by many as an act of recrimination and revenge—whether or not a solid case exists. It would polarize an electorate moving (even if slightly) in leftward directions. It would split the Democrats; only a small number of House Democrats have expressed any interest in such a crusade. Impeachment would eclipse the positive components of the Democratic legislative program that can actually help American families—such as boosting the minimum wage, lowering college student loan rate and fixing the alternative minimum tax.
An impeachment campaign would also distract from the debate over Iraq—which has recently been breaking in favor of disengagement. (Donald Rumsfeld sent a memo to Bush on November 6 noting that various withdrawal alternatives ought to be considered; the Iraq Study Group is proposing a troop pullout—without being too specific—as part of the course change Bush needs to ponder.) House and Senate Democrats generally advocate some version of disengagement, yet they have crafted no consensus on the details of withdrawal—and are not likely to do so soon, according to senior congressional Democratic aides. And only a handful of Democratic House members believe Congress at this point should mount a true intervention and cut off the funding of the war. With Bush showing no sign of rethinking his fundamental strategy in Iraq, the Democrats need to focus on what can be done to undo Bush's mess in Iraq—or, at least, to remove the United States from that mess. With Democrats somewhat split over how best to get out of Iraq, they do not need another internal fight that would subsume the Iraq issue, which ought to remain the top priority.
Impeachment advocates argue that they are merely exercising a constitutional option, adhering to fundamental obligations and answering, even if hesitantly, the call of (constitutional) duty. A president lies us into war. Aren't we compelled by principles to impeach him, no matter the political consequences? But the Constitution is not a political suicide pact. Impeachment would look like a bold power grab—and that could trigger a backlash against the Democrats (as it did with the Republicans during the Clinton wars). Any impeachment campaign worth its anger would have to target Bush and Dick Cheney. Otherwise, what would be the point? So the final result of this impeachment-a-rama would be Democratic Representative Nancy Pelosi as president. (Unless Cheney resigned in time for Bush to appoint a non-impeachable Republican as veep. Condoleezza Rice? John McCain?)
Many voters (particularly independents) will see the Democrats—rightly or wrongly—as power-hungry and exploiting an unpopular device to seize control of the White House, even as an election approaches. Remember all the criticism of the previous impeachment drive as antidemocratic, a violation of the popular will? How will this one play? Yes, the voters spoke in the recent election, but the balance of power in Congress is still nearly 50-50. Also, Bush is right: There was, as he put it in early 2005, “an “accountability moment.” The voters had a chance to toss him out of office in 2004 for misrepresenting the case for war and for botching the prosecution of the war, and they chose (by a narrow margin) not to do so. You want to increase the Republican chances of winning back Congress and staying in the White House? Then push impeachment.
There's another argument against impeachment: It will force its proponents to act as extremists. If you favor impeachment, then you must be committed to going all the way and this will include demanding (repeatedly) that the Democrats in Congress do the same. Impeachment is indeed an extreme action. To support it means that you believe the situation is dire and there's not a moment to waste. This will oblige impeachment partisans to assail Democrats—including Pelosi, who has declared impeachment “off the table,” and incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—for not seeing it this way. So Republicans and the White House officials can sit back and enjoy Democrats clawing each other over an issue not likely to be popular with non-Democratic voters (i.e., the people who just handed the Democrats their congressional victories).
Impeachment is a substitute—a wishful shortcut?—for the difficult legislating and organizing that the Democratic Party and progressives must do to win the country in 2008. The Dems have a window of opportunity at the moment to show the public what Democratic governance looks like. They should investigate the Bush administration on many fronts, including how Bush misrepresented the prewar intelligence and how he bungled the war, as well as Bush's expansive claims of executive power and how he has put such imperial thinking into practice (wiretaps, detentions, etc.). Perhaps such investigations will produce information or a showdown (say, the White House refusing to turn over information to Congress) that would strengthen the legal and political cases for impeachment. But in order to create a lasting and positive relationship with the electorate, Democrats must deliver legislatively and produce significant bills that connect with the concerns of Americans. That's job No. 1.
The Dems will have about 10 minutes to rebrand themselves when the new Congress convenes. Impeachment will be a serious impediment to that effort. Worse, it would become a black hole from which little, if any, political energy could escape. It would trump all else. After the recent elections, the congressional Democrats have Bush and the Republicans at a disadvantage; they have (as the cliché goes) the political capital of the moment. Spending it on impeachment would be a waste.