Impeach (Or Not)


There seems to be an argument developing in the progressive blogosphere about impeachment that has nothing to do with whether or not there’s a case or whether or not Bush/Cheney deserve to be impeached and thrown out of office. That’s pretty much a given on which everyone agrees. The argument is over practicalities vs moral imperatives.

Digby, as far as I can tell, started it three weeks ago with a post arguing that impeachment couldn’t work because there was no clear crime around which to center it.

First, I’ve never seen specific high crimes that could get voted out of the House (Elizabeth Holzman is dreaming if she thinks her charges could ever get a majority vote — the national security questions are going nowhere without a lot more information which we won’t get while Bush is in office, and the torture question was rendered pretty much moot by that “bi-partisan” military commissions act travesty.)

Second, time is not on our side. The executive privilege claims are going to take forever to litigate. And, of course, the conservative judiciary is likely to back them, if only by helping them run out the clock. During Watergate, the judiciary committee had the work of the Washington Post to go on —- and then John Dean and the tapes — in an easily understood narrative. Ken Starr gave Henry Hyde a nice little case about dirty sex all wrapped up in a pretty little pornographic package. Nobody had to do any investigation. The job of the congress, in both cases, was pretty much just seeing if impeachment applied to acts that had already been revealed. Things moved quickly.

This requires much more original investigation, particularly on those national security issues, which are going to be very touchy subjects and nearly impossible to get evidence or testimony on.

Thomas Nephew at newsrack blog then took Digby to task, arguing that her reasons were inadequate or just plain wrong.

For all that digby has earned her many accolades over the years (including many from me), she has no business writing about Holtzman — the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Representatives, a key participant in the House Watergate hearings, a district attorney, and a comptroller for the state of New York — as if she were some hand waving flower child from a commune somewhere. As Holtzman has argued, no one thought at first that the Nixon impeachment hearings would get as far as they did.

There are a number of highly arguable premises in the rest of digby’s post as well. For instance, much of what’s impeachable has been placed on the public record already, either by the administration itself, via ACLU and similar lawsuits, and reporting by journalists like Hersh, Priest, Marshall, and many others. More investigation and a clear constitutional discussion of what precisely does and does not merit impeachment will be good things, but there’s no need to search for even more “smoking gun” evidence when we’ve seen so many already, and found so many hot bullet casings, as it were, littered on the White House lawn. We’re also not necessarily running out of time.

eRobin at Fact-esque waded in on Digby’s side, offering a strong condemnation of Democrats as her primary reason.

I don’t operate from the position that the Congress is going to bring this President to justice. They do not have the fortitude, the imagination, the courage or the character to do it or to end the war, for that matter. Those jobs are falling to us. So I want a People’s Impeachment (capitalized to give it real heft!) that will convict these criminals in the court of public opinion where the verdict is insulated from the very serious voices of the establishment. I want Overton’s Impeachment Window moved. I want polls in favor of impeachment in the 70s – which will only happen as more and more people at the grassroots level push for it. We should keep pushing for impeachment with our friends and neighbors, get towns across the country to officially call for the same, call on Congress to impeach Abu G., make BushCo a laughing stock, weaken him at every opportunity. It’s all good. And I want something else – but to get it, I think I’ll have to step into the realm of fantasy: I want all the presidential candidates to, at every opportunity, condemn specific steps this president has taken to undermine the Constitution and to pledge to reverse them ALL on his/her first day in office. I am vastly more concerned with their reluctance to do that than I am even with BushCo’s persistance on his unconstitutional path. (from BushCo I worry that we’ll get another 9/11) The damage he’s done can be contained not only by impeachment (which would be my first choice in a reasonable world but is not in this one) but also by immediate repudiation of what he’s done over the last two terms by whoever gets elected to succeed him.

In point of fact, this argument – while substantial on both sides – is apples and oranges. Here is how Thomas ends the post I linked to above:

I don’t claim I’ve got a finely honed, prize-winning answer, but basically I think that not even trying to impeach Bush and Cheney — especially in a House and Senate with majority opposition — would say something far worse about this country, and have worse consequences, than trying and failing would.

We are the patriots in this fight. We, the people, are defending the Constitution of the United States of America — still a legacy to the world and the future, and still our best defense against criminal rogues like Bush and Cheney.

That Constitution gives us a tool called “impeachment” to fight an overreaching, scofflaw executive more concerned about his political allies, his own hide, and his claim to act without constraint, than about the country or our rights. It’s right to use this tool, we should use it, and I think indeed we must use it. Otherwise we essentially forfeit the Constitution as a dead letter — something to be studied by historians, but no longer relevant to our country, our ideals, or ourselves.

Where Digby and Rob are looking closely at the practical and political ramifications of impeachment in an age when conservatives all but own the major media, Thomas is saying none of that matters, that what’s important is standing up and refusing to let the Constitution continue to be shredded just because it’s perceived as a fight that can’t be won and may do more harm than good.

Thomas has been involved in the struggle to get Tacoma Park, MD to pass an impeachment resolution – a struggle he and his compatriots won (here’s a video of Tacoma Park’s Mayor slicing up Tucker Carlson’s Rovian TP’s like so much salami). Just yesterday he attacked Representative and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chairman Chris Van Hollen’s stand against impeachment. Van Hollen said:

[H]e did not want to “consume the entire resources and efforts” of Congress on impeachment. He claimed that impeachment would “would indisputably be the whole [focus] of Congress,” and that with the amount of time remaining before the next election, that would hinder Democrats’ ability to move forward on other things. He closed by reiterating the talking point that he did not want to “consume the entire resources of Congress on impeachment.”

Thomas considered that a weasel argument and said so.

While these are discouraging words to those of us who celebrated the city of Takoma Park’s impeachment resolution on Monday, there may be a silver lining — this argument is so patently absurd that an accomplished, intelligent man like Mr. Van Hollen could surely not bear repeating it for very long. I’ll look it up to make absolutely sure, but I don’t believe that crops rotted in the fields, millions starved, or that Congress was unable to do other work during the Nixon and Clinton impeachment processes.

Unfortunately, once you allow for hyperbole, Van Hollen’s statement is doubly discouraging. For it can surely only mean that supporting and defending the Constitution simply isn’t worth it to Rep. Van Hollen, when he thinks of all the other things he wants to accomplish — it’s too costly, too much effort, too many other priorities suffer.

Too bad.

You took an oath, Mr. Van Hollen. That oath wasn’t to pass an energy bill, it wasn’t to raise the minimum wage, it wasn’t to enact the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, it wasn’t even to get us out of Iraq.

I’m sorry it’s inconvenient; I’m sorry it may mean more work; I’m sorry you may pass one less highway bill. But the oath you took was to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. That is your job.

The problem here is, of course, that they’re both right. The political fallout from impeachment hearings, particularly if they’re botched, would be extremely unpleasant and possibly dangerous. A failure to impeach could indeed end by strengthening a president’s power to subvert the Constitution rather than weakening it, a legitimately frightening prospect.

On the other hand, socially and as citizens, if we don’t impeach we are running exactly the same risk. To let high crimes and misdemeanors slide by without punishment or consequences of any kind is both an abrogation of our responsibility in a democracy and a clear signal to authoritarians and oligarchs that they can do what they like whenever they have the power to do so, including exchanging an inconvenient democracy for a fascist dictatorship, without worrying that we’ll rebel in any significant way.

Rob’s answer tries to have it both ways by postulating a grass-roots movement to impeach which replaces a proper Congressional impeachment, thereby weakening Bush without risking the formidable political downside of formal proceedings. The other half-way measures that have been proposed – censure, defunding, criminal contempt citations followed by limited and targeted legal actions – are all attractive for the same reason.

Unfortunately, none of these impeachment alternatives are terribly realistic, and while there are many reasons for this, I can boil them all down to one: Iraq.

Iraq is the focus down here on the ground. Period, The End. It is The Issue. It is not just first on everybody’s list, it is the list. As long as the occupation goes on and our soldiers continue to be maimed and die in the service of Bush’s ego and Cheney’s neocon fantasies, there is no other issue. Unless impeachment can be tied to the war in some simple and coherent fashion, it doesn’t have a hope of capturing the attention of a sizable chunk of the US public. We are consumed with ending the war. It is all we can see, all we have room for.

And even if you could tie the two together (an article of impeachment concerned with the blatant lies and cooked intel the administration used to get us into this mess might work; the Libby commutation would not), it’s still unlikely it would take any significant attention away from Iraq no matter how simple your narrative was or how clear-cut the crime. Unless –

Unless you sell impeachment as the only, or at least quickest, way to end the war. That argument we would not only accept, we’d rally around it. You’d see support for impeachment triple, quadruple, within weeks. Within a few months, you’d have your grass-roots movement. In spades.

The trouble is, it isn’t true. As Big Tent Democrat at Talk Left has argued incessantly, defunding it is the quickest way to end the war, and it’s hard even for me to see how impeachment would speed that up. If the Democratic Congress won’t force the obstructionist Pubs to filibuster for real – meaning for weeks, if necessary – to stop the defunding of the war, thereby earning them the sanctified ire and blazing enmity of a population that wants this thing over NOW, how would they ever get an impeachment resolution to the floor to begin with?

Which may be an odd reason to wind up on the side of impeachment, but that’s what’s happened. We don’t actually have anything to lose by raising the ugly specter of impeachment, practically speaking. The battle lines are already drawn, the forces are already converging, and the Constitutional crisis is already upon us. We are in a position where every option contains within it a serious negative impact. No matter what we do, we’re fucked.

When that happens, when all practical considerations are equally shitty, all that’s left is conscience. If there is any hope – any legitimate, realistic hope – of saving our democracy from the ravages of plutocrats and petty dictators, it lies in a single-minded, damn-the-consequences defense of democratic principles and Constitutional remedies.

Not because it won’t fail. It may. But because somebody has to start reminding the American people of what America used to mean, what it used to believe, what its true guiding principles have always been however imperfectly they worked in practice.

Thomas is absolutely right: the core of the impeachment movement should be, must be, in its power to reawaken in us a willingness to fight for core American values once again. No, it’s not practical. No, it’s not safe. But it’s the only argument that cuts across all partisan lines, the only thing those of us who are not authoritarians have in common.

In America, the people rule the govt. The govt doesn’t rule us.

After the past 6 years of Constitution-shredding and imperial power-grabbing, the only – ONLY – way to cut through the crap is to demand the impeachment and removal of the administration that prosecuted and continues to defend an illegal war, no matter what lies they told us to justify it in the beginning; that spied on us; that broke numerous laws in the attempt to create a one-party nation; that sold the govt off to corporations; and that is so mind-bogglingly wrong about everything and so inept that its continued existence is a danger to the Republic.

Make the war and occupation a signal proof of the danger this administration represents and talk incessantly about the freedom, respect, and tolerance of difference that is the backbone of our nation. Make it clear that supporting the Bush-Cheney gang threatens the America we thought we knew, the America we used to believe in. As Thomas put it (so much better than I can) when he spoke at the Tacoma Park Council meeting:

I think the short answer to “why bother?” is summed up by the question: “what if we don’t even bother?” Among the terrible precedents this administration has set are: the utter sin and crime of torture. A fraudulent case for war. Abrogation of habeas corpus. Warrantless surveillance in direct defiance of specific law. A king-like disregard and contempt for other laws properly passed and signed, and a refusal to enforce them. Each of these are grounds enough for impeachment, and new ones taunt us each day – Libby’s commutation – the US Attorneys scandal (both considered impeachable by James Madison) – executive orders threatening to dispossess Iraq war opponents – refusal to honor congressional subpoenas or enforce contempt citations. Together, they add up to a administration that must be opposed, whose very policy is to flout the Constitution, to make it a dead letter instead of a living guardian of our liberties and the rule of law.

But also, unless we act now, the next administration like this one can take its lawless, amoral, unconstitutional approach as a consensus starting point, instead of a shame on this country and a reproach to its institutions.

That’s where we come in. The first three words of the Constitution are “We, the people.” We “ordain and establish” the Constitution, we are responsible for it. We, here in this room, too. You, our elected leaders, too. While Congress has hesitated discussing this, you have not, and you have my deep gratitude for that.

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3 responses to “Impeach (Or Not)

  1. We are already suffering the consequences of a Congress too timid to impeach, too timid to defend the Constitution.
    I speak, of course, of the signal failure of the Iran-Contra investigation.
    In Iran Contra, the Reagan Administration quietly set up a rump government, with its own sources of private funding (not controlled by Congress), and with its own independent military. This was a direct attempt to subvert the Constitution of the United States, a threat to our form of government. And it was somewhat successful, in that all the malefactors got off scot-free, emboldening and showing the way to the felons who now control the Executive branch.

  2. Yes. I’m afraid I have to agree. The timidity of the Democrats disturbed me all through the Reagan Administration. After the courage they had shown dealing with Nixon, I couldn’t understand it. It was the beginning of 20 years of spinelessness. It didn’t make sense to me then and it doesn’t now. Iran-Contra was the capper. I was furious that they let that go, and for exactly the reason you state. I sort of got over the anger but I haven’t trusted them since.

    And now they may do it again, this time over crimes even worse than Reagan’s. It’s enough to make you spit.

  3. Pingback: Maybe the Dems Want Authoritarian Powers « Mick Arran

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