Devil’s Advocate

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Bush Administration

Steven Thomma of McClatchy Newspapers describes a groundswell of support for impeachment of George Bush and Dick Cheney.

More than 70 cities and 14 state Democratic parties have urged impeachment or investigations that could lead to impeachment. The most common charge is that Bush manipulated intelligence to lead the country into the Iraq war. Other charges include spying on Americans and torturing suspected terrorists in violation of U.S. and international law.

Most recently, the Massachusetts Democratic Party voted to push impeachment of both men. The 2,500 state convention delegates voted almost unanimously against Cheney; the vote against Bush was closer.

Massachusetts’ Democratic Party thus joined 13 others on the investigate-or-impeach bandwagon, including: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.

Among the cities and towns, the largest and most recent is Detroit, where the city council voted 7-0 this month to urge Congress to impeach Bush and Cheney for “intentionally misleading Congress and the public regarding the threat from Iraq in order to justify the war.”

“There’s a lot growing in support,” said Tim Carpenter, the director of the liberal group Progressive Democrats of America. “Whether Congress will respond, that’s another question.”

Thomma goes on to describe three reasons Dems in Congress are dragging their feet. IMO these three reasons are bad reasons.

The first is that they haven’t yet found that Bush/Cheney have committed an impeachable offense. Oh, puh-LEEZE. We have a broad selection of impeachable offenses to choose from.

The second is that Dems fear a political backlash, the way Republicans were “punished” in public opinion polls (but not, notice, at the voting booth) after they’d impeached Bill Clinton. I don’t think this excuse is applicable, either. I believe most of the public by 1998 had grown heartily sick of the Republicans’ perpetual investigations of Clinton’s every twitch and the hysterical frenzy with which they repeatedly attacked Clinton for so much as breathing. Piranha politics can be effective when people are looking for excuses to dislike a president, but not so much when the guy is charming and doing a reasonably satisfactory job.

The third reason:

The third is that they’re eager to keep Bush and Cheney around as punching bags for Democratic candidates in the 2008 campaign.

“The political lens they’re looking through is the 2008 election,” Carpenter said. “They want to see Bush and Cheney dangling so the election is a referendum on them. That is not the correct lens.”

I think it’s possible impeachment hearings might actually help the Dems and make them look stronger and more principled in contrast to the GOP snivelers who will (probably) still make excuses for Bush. The 1973-74 Watergate investigations and hearings in the Senate and House certainly didn’t hurt Dems in the 1974 midterms (Dems picked up 49 seats). Several previously obscure Dems became stars; Barbara Jordan is one example.

Whether impeachment hearings would reflect well or badly on the Dems might depend on how they went about it. As much as possible I’d want them to frame impeachment as an act of due diligence to protect the Constitution, not as a way to punish Bush and Cheney for being bad. Take a look at Barbara Jordan’s opening statement to the House Judiciary Committee:

I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution. …

… We know the nature of impeachment. We have been talking about it awhile now. “It is chiefly designed for the president and his high ministers” to somehow be called into account. It is designed to “bridle” the executive if he engages in excesses. “It is designed as a method of national inquest into the public men.” (Hamilton, Federalist, no. 65.) The framers confined in the congress the power if needbe, to remove the president in order to strike a delicate balance between a president swollen with power and grown tyrannical, and preservation of the independence of the executive. The nature of impeachment is a narrowly channeled exception to the separation-of-powers maxim; the federal convention of 1787 said that. It limited impeachment to high crimes and misdemeanors and discounted and opposed the term “maladministration.” “It is to be used only for great misdemeanors,” so it was said in the North Carolina ratification convention. And in the Virginia ratification convention: “We do not trust our liberty to a particular branch. We need one branch to check the others.”…

… The drawing of political lines goes to the motivation behind impeachment; but impeachment must proceed within the confines of the constitutional term “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Of the impeachment process, it was Woodrow Wilson who said that “nothing short of the grossest offenses against the plain law of the land will suffice to give them speed and effectiveness. Indignation so great as to overgrow party interest may secure a conviction; but nothing else can.”

Common sense would be revolted if we engaged upon this process for insurance, campaign finance reform, housing, environmental protection, energy sufficiency, mass transportation. Pettiness cannot be allowed to stand in the face of such overwhelming problems. So today we are not being petty. We are trying to be big because the task we have before us is a big one.

We must not be petty. Or smarmy. Or hysterical. We must be measured and solemn and undertake this act only when the acts of the Executive are potentially injurious to the Constitution itself. The charges against Bill Clinton didn’t come within ten miles of those criteria. I think most of the nation understood that the articles of impeachment brought against Clinton were petty, and part of a partisan war being waged by the Right. The lynch mob hysteria exhibited by Republicans in 1998 in no way resembled the gravity and solemnity with which Congress approached impeachment in 1974.

There’s a fourth reason not listed in Steven Thomma’s article, and that reason should be considered very carefully.

As you probably remember, articles of impeachment — essentially accusations against the President — must originate in the House. I believe such articles need only a simple majority to pass. Once impeached, a president is tried in the Senate. Conviction requires a two-thirds vote.

What happens if Bush is impeached, tried … and not convicted? Wouldn’t he then be exonerated? Wouldn’t impeachment then be rendered into an empty gesture?

At the moment there is no way two-thirds of the Senate would convict Bush. That might change after public hearings. But the burden of proof is huge. It’s not enough to prove that Bush did something unethical or even broke a law. Instead, it must be shown without doubt that Bush’s conduct in office has rendered serious damage to the Constitution and our system of government itself, and that the survival of our Republic depends on making it clear to all future presidents that this will not stand.

I think that case can be made. But if there’s any doubt, then I’d have to reluctantly agree that impeachment may not be the best move.

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9 Comments

  1. PW  •  May 29, 2007 @9:44 am

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. The job, if it’s to be done, has to be done in the most professional way. Although it’s a political move, the process of impeachment has to be cool and thorough if it’s to be respected. Republicans, no less than Dems, saw through the Clinton impeachment, saw the prurience with which Congressional Republicans went after Clinton, and it disgusted them no less than the rest of us. To be honest, I have less than total confidence in the leading Dems at this point. They seem scattered. It’s extraordinary that they have been handed a huge buffet of administration (and Congressional) malfeasance and they manage to walk away on Memorial Day weekend looking starved and lost.

  2. joanr16  •  May 29, 2007 @10:45 am

    I would have thought that Bush’s intransigence on the question of exiting Iraq leaves Congress (including one or two Repugs, such as our Chuck) with no option but impeachment.

    I agree with you, maha, that the case needs to be laid out so that the bastard(s) are convicted. It seems to me that Bush & Cheney are so entwined in their illegality, they ought to be tried together.

  3. Jack K. the Grumpy Forester  •  May 29, 2007 @11:41 am

    …’intransigence on exiting Iraq’ isn’t impeachable, even if polls suggest a majority of American think we ought to get out. There is, however, a long list of actions that could lead to articles of impeachment: playing fast and loose with pre-invasion intelligence; illegal domestic surveillance; firing US Attorneys in order to turn the Justice Dept into a political machine; any one or two or ten of the 750+ signing statements that Bush has used to subvert his Constitutional obligation to enforce the laws passed by Congress.

    Impeachment, unfortunately, is a game of numbers and tallies. In the adult lifetime of many Republican members of Congress, they have seen the President of their party chased from office and a failed effort to even the score (which was part of the foundation for efforts to find some…any…reason to impeach Clinton). Until a series of measured, solemn hearings have sufficiently provided evidence to Republican Senators that they cannot withstand the pressure of supporting Bush and Cheney in office, they will pull out all the stops to resist any efforts to impeach another of their Presidents (see: Reagan, Ronald, and Bush, George H. W., vis a vis the Iran-Contra Affair)…

  4. temperance  •  May 29, 2007 @3:11 pm

    Looks like a republican will win the White House…and based on how this Congress has been handling its charge. Rightfully so.

  5. maha  •  May 29, 2007 @3:28 pm

    Looks like a republican will win the White House…and based on how this Congress has been handling its charge. Rightfully so.

    I’d still put money on a Dem winning the White House in 2008. Peoples’ memories aren’t that short.

  6. felicity  •  May 29, 2007 @3:43 pm

    “To protect our country and our Constitution from leadership that has become a danger to the country.” A law professor’s reading of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’

    According to a recent article in ‘Harpers’ “Undoing Bush – How to repair eight years of sabotage, bungling, and neglect,” “…He (Bush) …has left behind him a legacy of damage so profound that repairing it will likely be the work of generations.”

    It may be that leaving him in office until ’09 will leave us a legacy of damage so profound that repairing it will be impossible.

  7. PW  •  May 29, 2007 @6:53 pm

    It’d be really hard to nail these guys, given the care with which they cover their tracks. Take a look at this piece on Cheney’s visitor list:

    http://www.philly.com/philly/wires/ap/news/nation/washington/7733242.html

  8. Swami  •  May 29, 2007 @7:43 pm

    Nothing ventured, nothing gained?… Isn’t half a chance at requiring accountibilty better then none?..If they sit around counting costs and the probabilities of sucesss they’ll never get off the ground.. I’m in the Rumsfeld school of thought..You impeach with the congress and information you have,not with the Congress and information you wish you had.

    Just do it!…Step out in faith.

  9. Bonnie  •  May 29, 2007 @7:50 pm

    Earlier today, I read an article that goes along with some of these theme and, perhaps, provides even more insight in why there will be no impeachment. It can be found at the following website:

    http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/05/29/1500/

    It was called:
    The Republican Plan For 2008 Begins Today
    by Thom Hartmann

    The final three paragraphs:

    “Meanwhile, the Bush plan is imminently clear to the Republicans in Congress. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, about the same time Reid was speaking, was telling reporters that “the handwriting is on the wall that we are going in a different direction in the fall, and I expect the president to lead it.” Republican Senator Jeff Sessions openly said that same day that the “war” in Iraq is no longer a “war,” but an occupation, setting the stage for a withdrawal that won’t be perceived as a defeat.

    The plan is simple. By November of 2008, the “victories” of the Democrats’ first hundred days in office will be long forgotten, the “war” will be remembered as “difficult, but at least we won it,” and those “anti-war” Democrats will be portrayed as wimps or cravenly anti-American.

    The only question now is how placidly the Democrats will continue to play their assigned role in this little drama. And how many more people will die between now and the time Republicans cynically (and finally) execute their strategy in time for the 2008 elections.”

    It really is enough to make me sick.

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