I recently attended a raucous town hall meeting in Brooklyn, billed as an end-the-war event. As it turned out, 90% of the questions were about impeachment, not the war(s). The views Congressmen Nadler and Weiner expressed on the politics of 2008 showed me that in the halls of Congress 2004 still rules. They have not fully digested 2006, let alone 2008. So, hoping to crack their 2004 lens, I took a stab at explaining impeachment to them, 2008 style, in a long letter to Nancy Pelosi. Part I, below, is a review of the policy aspects for and against impeachment. Part II is my take on the politics of impeachment 2008, coming soon.
I recently attended a raucous town hall meeting in Brooklyn, billed as an end-the-war event. As it turned out, 90% of the questions were about impeachment, not the war(s). Three U.S. Congress members attended: Jerrold Nadler, Anthony Weiner (both Judiciary Committee members)and Yvette Clarke. Rep. Clarke had already signed on as a co-sponsor of the Kucinich impeachment resolution, so she was let off with cheers. The focus was on Reps Nadler and Weiner, who stuck to their position against impeachment under very tough pressure. Their arguments were adamant and repetitious, even canned – clearly the party line had been laid down, and they were sticking to it, Republican fashion. At one point, Nadler and Weiner agreed that Bush and Cheney were guilty of impeachable acts – but that was, to them, not the point. To them, everything boiled down to ELECT MORE DEMOCRATS IN 2008, and the only place to get more Democrats is in blue dog territory, bad for impeachment, so progressive Democrats MUST oppose impeachment. That’s it. All of it.
Update: This town meeting took place before the November 6th vote on the Kucinich Resolution, which was referred back to the Judiciary Committee with 87 Democratic votes (86 + Kucinich). The motion to kill the resolution was defeated primarily by Republicans intending to embarrass the House leadership, but the 87 Democratic votes probably represent real support for impeachment. Nadler voted Yea, to kill it. Weiner and Clarke voted No. Since the resolution came to the floor with 22 co-sponsors, this strange parliamentary maneuver resulted in quadrupling the public support in Congress for impeachment. Not bad, Rep. Kucinich. Since then, Rep. Wexler, a member of the Judiciary Committee, has called for impeachment hearings. There may be some life after all in this moldy old Constitutional safeguard.
Back at the town meeting, the views Nadler and Weiner expressed on the politics of 2008 showed me that 2004 still rules in the halls of Congress. They have not fully digested 2006, let alone 2008. So I took another stab at explaining impeachment to them in a long letter to Nancy Pelosi (odd format, I know, but I like the personal approach). I tried to review the impeachment arguments in a 2008 context, hoping to crack their 2004 lens. My support for impeachment is based on policy and principle, not electoral politics, but the total concentration on politics at the town meeting made me think more about what the focus of electoral politics in 2008 should be. Part I, below, is a review of the policy aspects for and against impeachment. Part II is my take on the politics of impeachment 2008, coming soon.
Dear Speaker Pelosi:
I urge you to revoke your longstanding dictum that impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney is "off the table" and instead call for impeachment hearings in the Judiciary Committee.
Part I – Impeachment Issues.
As I see it, the decision to impeach or not must ultimately be made by the American people, not by leaders in Congress. The critical issue before the Congress right now is not impeachment itself, but allowing open debate through Congressional hearings, permitting Americans at last to see the evidence for and against impeachment in the organized, coherent form that the regular media have failed to present. If the House Judiciary Committee conducts fair and competent hearings, I believe American public opinion will solidify so strongly in favor of impeachment that the votes in Congress will carry the day. But even if the final result falls short of impeachment and removal from office, the process should still be initiated for these reasons:
1. Impeachment is warranted.
Bush Administration officials at the highest levels of government are guilty of "high crimes and misdemeanors." The President, Vice President and many of their ranking appointees have violated American laws and international treaties and conventions. The facts can be covered up or obfuscated, but they remain the truth.
2. Impeachment is appropriate.
Impeachment is the remedy set forth in the Constitution when government officials are guilty of "high crimes and misdemeanors." Through statute and convention as well as Constitutional provision, the House of Representatives and Senate have instituted safeguards and procedures to assure rigor and fairness in determining if an official has failed to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed..."
3. Impeachment is needed to protect democracy.
Our generation has seen three prior crises of governmental integrity – Vietnam, Watergate and Iran-Contra – where high-level government officials violated their oath of office and disobeyed laws. Justice was, at best, only partially realized in these crises. Consequently, the perpetrators of high crimes and misdemeanors concluded that laws can be disregarded by the powerful. Some of the chief actors in today’s crisis are veterans of our 1960’s, ‘70’s and ‘80’s scandals. If Congress had fully implemented its impeachment remedies for Vietnam, Watergate and Iran-Contra crimes, it is inconceivable that the current cancer of "unitary executive" could have gained sufficient power to steal the presidency, prosecute an illegal war, institute a gulag abroad and mass surveillance at home, all without the accountability of "checks and balances" embedded in our Constitution. With our democracy imperiled, we must avail ourselves of what Bruce Fein has called the founders’ remedy for royalism.
The arguments against impeachment are factually wrong, ill-considered or morally indefensible. I recently attended a town meeting in Brooklyn where the opposition to impeachment by our elected representatives was so adamant, repetitious, and consistent that it amounted to a party line. For this reason, as well as your published comments, I must attribute these positions to you, as the chief representative of the House leadership:
1. Impeachment is a protracted process; it takes years.
Not true. Impeachment is fast, for government. The process formally begins when an impeachment resolution is introduced in the House of Representatives, followed by hearings before the House Judiciary Committee. Before that, fact-finding hearings are normally held, to investigate accusations of official wrongdoing. For the Bush administration, this process is already underway. The House and Senate began investigatory hearings in February, 2007. Rep Kucinich introduced an impeachment resolution, HR 333, in April, 2007, which was voted back to the Judiciary Committee in November, with 4 times the support it had before the vote, including 60% of the Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee. The timeline for the Watergate impeachment, from the beginning of House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings to Nixon’s resignation was 6 months. Using the Clinton impeachment as a guide, an impeachment vote of the full House in 1974, had it happened, might have required another 2-4 weeks, and a Senate trial another 2-4 weeks. This is a conservative timeline; it is well within possibility that impeachment proceedings against Bush and Cheney would take weeks, not months, because the facts are already well established, if not well disseminated.
Is Congress too busy to spend 3-6 months, part-time, bringing the full truth of Bush administration crimes and misdemeanors into full public focus? Is it preferable to wait and watch while the war goes on, at the "annualized" rate of 1,000 American and 20,000 Iraqi lives? Should we shake our heads ineffectually if a sneak attack on Iran occurs? Are these few months too long to spend setting a stronger precedent against future presidents’ royalist ambitions? For me, the answer is NO.
2. Impeachment is a distraction from our legislative agenda.
There was a progressive legislative agenda when the Democrats won control of the House in 2006, and some of the easier items, the low-hanging fruit, were achieved, to your great credit. Nevertheless, the most important issues are deadlocked, hogtied by a coalition of rock-hard Republicans and blue dog Democrats. There is no prospect this year for ending war(s), restoring civil liberties, achieving universal health care, homeland security, infrastructure renewal, clean energy or any remaining part of the progressive agenda. Conventional legislative processes have reached an impasse. (List of bills Bush promised to veto attached.)
It is this impasse, and Democrats’ ineffectual response, that has turned public opinion so decisively against the Democrats in Congress. Watered-down compromise will not replace real legislative achievement in regaining the respect of the public. If you cannot legislate, what is the next step? Like disgusted Americans across the country, I believe the next step is impeachment, the only thing that can transform this stalemate and cancel the Republicans’ free ticket to January 2009.
3. Impeachment is a waste of time because it will never happen.
Never is a very long time, and judgments based on present reality can be proved wrong if things change. I agree that if the Senate were to vote today to remove the president or vice president from office, the result would fall short of 67 Yea votes. I do not agree that (a) the current reality is impervious to change, or that (b) anything that does not achieve the desired result is a waste of time. There are sound reasons, principled and political, for initiating the process. When the Watergate hearings began, impeachment had little support in public opinion polls; after the hearings public opinion was so strong that a large majority of Republicans and Democrats in Congress were compelled to support it. In contrast, a large majority of Americans now believes that Bush and Cheney have committed impeachable acts, and a near-majority outright favors impeachment. It is our leadership, both Republican and Democratic, that obstructs the majority judgment.
There is no way to know if the present Judiciary Committee has a Barbara Jordan to galvanize American patriotism, or if there will be sensational new revelations of Bush administration wrongdoing, or if a coherent presentation of the known facts will coalesce to inflame public opinion. All we can do is allow the process to start, do the best job of it we can, and trust the public to do the right thing. I hope and expect that you will, before it’s too late, accept your obligation to take that course.
4. Impeachment will polarize the country and cause a Democratic defeat in 2008.
To me, this contention is the most wrongheaded of all the anti-impeachment arguments advanced. If we just keep quiet and don’t rock the boat, we will surely win the presidency and increase our House and Senate margins in 2008, right? Wrong! Even if it is true that our national leaders live in a bubble of polls, in-group norms, and the conventional wisdom of Beltway consultants (which I do not necessarily accept), how could anyone not know how profoundly the public is opposed to the war, anxious about the economy, sick of corrupt warloving Republicans and contemptuous of weak-kneed Democrats? The only unknown is whether revulsion toward Republicans is stronger or weaker than disdain for Democrats. Not to patronize a national leader, but these are the facts:
** America is polarized, but much less intensely than it was. At the height of conservative power, the liberal-conservative-undecided split was about 45-45-10 (if memory serves), but the Bush years have so deeply damaged the Republican brand that current opinion across issues is about 60-70% liberal, 15-30% conservative, and 10-20% undecided. The significance of this polarization is that the minority of committed conservatives do not want compromise – you may have noticed that in Congress – and the majority of committed liberals want real results, not half measures. The rest are not the middle-of-the-roaders that pundits revere, but are mostly undecided. As recent legislative experience shows, neither liberals nor conservatives accept cosmetic gestures of unanimity. For example, when you are frustrated in your effort to end the war, the next step is not to propose a non-binding "goal" or "timetable." The next step is to try a new strategy.
** Although public opinion favors ending the war, civil liberties, healthcare, the environment and social freedom by good majorities, it cannot be said that Democratic office holders are similarly favored, especially Democrats in Congress. The logical explanation for this disconnect is that we support Democratic issues, but disdain Democrats’ ineffectual efforts to advance our issues in Congress. The public is evidently unsatisfied with effort; we expect results. For the Democratic leadership this is a time to snatch opportunity boldly, not cling to never-ending caution and the whiny me-too-ism of the Republican heyday.
** The Republican elite has a clear strategy to counter their unfavorable trends. They use parliamentary tricks to frustrate Democratic goals in Congress, then attack the "Do-Nothing Congress." They smear Democratic candidates for public office relentlessly. They steal elections with a thousand small cheats. The corporate media they own produces "news" that obfuscates facts, ignores issues and focuses on celebrity and conflict. These are proven staples in the Republican toolkit, and I see no indication that they will abandon these tactics in their hour of need.
** It is not at all certain that the Democrats will gain the presidency in 2008. The Republicans have some factors in their favor: First, slime works, and there will be no shortage of slime poured on the Democratic candidate(s). Whether Democrats are cautious or pugnacious, attacks will be nasty and unrelenting. Second, the public disdains confusion or meekness in the face of attack. We are not a turn-the-other-cheek kind of people. Third, due to the early primaries, there will be an exceptionally long season for the mud to fly. Finally, we should not forget that the presidency was stolen from the Democrats not once but twice, and the 2004 model – thousands of small cheats in thousands of places – was even more successful than the head-on attack of 2000.
The obvious conclusion to draw from these realities is that principled opposition is a winning strategy; caution and meek compliance are a recipe for defeat. A good offense may not always be the best defense in politics, but it is the best strategy for 2008.
Part 2 to follow, coming soon.