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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Impeachment Questions

(Note: This is a cross-post from a piece I did today for TPMCafe.com, in response to Josh Marshall’s suggestion that Bush’s defiance of Congress on the U.S. Attorney Firing Scandal may make impeachment talk a lot more serious, even for people like him who’ve never liked the idea. I guess this is High Controversy Day at TDS, based on this item and the earlier staff post encouraging Court-packing).
Citing the Clinton precedent, M.J. Rosenberg writes:
“[I]mpeachment is no longer the political nuclear bomb it once was, especially if one knows in advance that conviction and removal from office is unlikely to occur. Accordingly, impeachment proceedings are essentially the best means of getting information to the public which is otherwise unavailable.”
I’m glad M.J. is beginning with the premise that actual impeachment and removal of Bush ain’t happening, at least based on the current dynamics. I do not share his optimism about impeachment proceedings serving as a “lever” to bring Bush to heel, given everything we know about the man. Nor do I really understand Josh’s suggestion that initiating a pre-doomed impeachment effort will somehow serve as a legal precedent reducing the impact of Bush’s scofflaw behavior.
So the fundamental question remains whether Democrats want to take up the “I-word” as a political exercise. And other questions quickly follow.
From the Clinton experience, we know that public opinion turned decisively against the impeachment effort once it became obvious the Senate wasn’t going to convict him (which wasn’t entirely obvious at the beginning of the saga), for the simple reason that the whole thing looked like a waste of time. So what will happen to the current, surprisingly strong public support for impeachment if the extreme unlikelihood of a successful outcome is conceded from the get-go?
A second question, which everyone understands, is what to do about Dick Cheney. A dual or sequential impeachment effort is entirely without precedent, and every single problem with a late-term impeachment would get vastly more complicated.
A third question is the scope of impeachment articles. Josh seems to assume that Bush’s defiance of Congress and his quasi-imperial notions of executive privilege are the trigger. But many Democrats would be outraged if the administration’s behavior before and after the invasion of Iraq were not included; others might well argue that the abandonment of New Orleans was an impeachable offense. With a presidency this bad, where do you draw the line?
And a fourth question is how to impose party discipline during an impeachment fight. Like it or not, it’s a certainty that a sizable number of Democrats in both Houses of Congress will be reluctant to “go there,” some simply because of the Clinton experience.
[More after the jump}.

And that brings me to the issue that most troubles me about this debate: its effect on Democratic unity going into 2008. Anyone familiar with netroots discussion of this issue knows there are already significant numbers of Democrats who are disposed to think of this as a basic test of courage and principle. Do we really want this to be the dominant issue in the Democratic presidential nominating contest, which it would instantly become? Remembering the premise is that impeachment would be a completely political exercise, are we ready for the possibility that Democratic credibility would be “impeached?”
All these questions are based on current political conditions, which could change. If, for example, the administration launched an unauthorized preemptive military strike on Iran, then impeachment would truly be unavoidable, and a Senate conviction could conceivably succeed.
M.J.’s right that impeachment cannot truly be “taken off the table,” and shouldn’t be. But that’s not the issue; it’s whether Democrats should encourage their congressional leaders to begin taking practical steps towards impeachment, in the limited window of time available for it. If the real crisis is over Bush’s executive-privilege claims, other options are available, such as contempt of Congress citations designed to produce a court test. Some have also raised the possibility of defunding the offices of the president and vice president.
But the questions about the “I-word” need to be honestly addressed, without the presumption that anything less is craven, before Democrats move in that fateful direction.

3 comments on “Impeachment Questions

  1. dbt on

    From the Clinton experience, we know that public opinion turned decisively against the impeachment effort once it became obvious the Senate wasn’t going to convict him (which wasn’t entirely obvious at the beginning of the saga), for the simple reason that the whole thing looked like a waste of time.
    What evidence can you cite to back up this assertion? As a non-politically-involved person at the time, I thought that what he did didn’t rise to the level of impeachment and I resented the fact that they went through with it.
    That having been said, it was so unpopular that 2 years later they controlled the house, senate and white house….

  2. Albert Whited on

    I agree that with Congress’ current constitution impeachment talk is futile. But given the especially egregious nature and number of outrageous crimes committed by this administration, Justice screams for service.
    Here in my hometown of Atlanta, one young Genarlow Wilson has languished in a prison cell for nearly 3 years. His “crime” was as a 17-year old minor receiving oral sex from his 15 year-old girlfriend. (Coincidentally, the same “crime” that led to WJC’s impeachment.) His sentence: 10 years hard time.
    Contrast that “crime” with those that have resultd in the now upwards of 650,000 innocent Iraqis who are stone cold dead, the 5X that many who are maimed, our own 3,600+ dead troops and 18K injured, and a Treasury literally embezzled by these war policies of hundreds of billions of our hard-earned tax dollars. Will their instigators, their perpetrators ever even see the inside of a jail cell? (L.I. Libby, for one, surely won’t.)
    How much time will Bush serve for his crimes? How about Cheney? Or Gonzalez and Ashcroft? Especially in light of political realities that deny their impeachments? Are the magnitude of their crimes so great that we don’t even have the mechanism, nay, even the imagination to prosecute them? Oh, if only one of them had been caught “in flagrante delicto.” As young Genarlo would attest, we have in spades both the cruelty and the will to punish the sexually adventurous, but apparently not the real criminals.
    It is a scant six quarters until Bush, Cheney & Co. will be civilians again, and well within the reach of the Law. I think a Democratic Congress should at that time authorize a special prosecutor’s office to investigate and indict these thieves, these murderers. Only then will the legions dead rest, in measure, avenged.

  3. Bryrock on

    As much as I have longed to see an early end to Bush tyranny, I have until recently shuddered at the thought of actually going there, towards impeachment. I’ve seen some dumb reasons to be in favor of impeachment, and they would no doubt cloud the mix of reasons for and rancor from pursuing it, but having listened to and spent a week or so mulling over the thoughts of Bruce Fein, I now see it as a Constitutional imperative.
    Yeah, it could be bad for our party, but the problem we are now facing is one that is largely due to the fact that Republicans have been unable to place the Constitution before party goals and ideals. It is becoming a matter of duty to not fall into that trap ourselves and to remedy the crisis we are now all in together.


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