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Impeachment Imprudence

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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

This may be my mother's doing. About 20 months ago, in a column I wrote at the time of her 90th birthday, I noted that Estelle had been peppering me with questions about why we weren't impeaching the president. I gave her what I thought were sufficient reasons: He could be ousted in the coming election; grotesque misconduct in office was not necessarily a high crime or misdemeanor; the Republicans controlled Congress; Dick Cheney was the guy on deck -- that sort of thing. None of it took. At her house one afternoon, talking on the phone, I reached for a pad of paper to jot down some notes and found her handwritten agenda for the day. There was a list of vegetables. Then it said, "Coca-Cola." Then it said, "Impeach Bush." Underlined.

Nearly 92 now, Estelle hasn't really slowed down very much, and she must still be preaching the gospel of impeachment to her friends in her Democratic club and, I can only conclude, her Improv group as well. Because, damn -- this impeachment stuff is really getting around.

It's all over the blogosphere. It's the cover story in the current Harper's. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has passed an impeachment resolution. Antiwar activists, civil libertarians, all the usual-suspect constituencies have growing impeachment tendencies. But it's reaching beyond the usual suspects, as I discovered last month when I appeared on a media panel before the national legislative conference of a major union. Local activists from across the nation spent an hour asking us questions, and one out of every three queries, it seemed to me, boiled down to, "How can we impeach this guy?"

Now, I bow to no one in my conviction that George W. Bush's is a malevolent presidency. The leading figures of his administration manipulated facts and fabricated fictions to justify going to war in Iraq. They ignored the intelligence reports that predicted the strife that would follow Saddam Hussein's ouster, and sent our troops in harm's way with no plausible strategy for how to handle the violence and with insufficient armor to shield themselves from it. They were missing in action when a great American city and thousands of American citizens needed rescue. This administration has authorized torture, though the United States has signed conventions that forbid it. It has authorized warrantless wiretapping and surveillance, though it is plainly against the law.

History, I'll wager, will find Bush as inept as James Buchanan, on whose watch the Union broke up. It will find him as divisive, as eager to polarize the nation to his political advantage, no matter the costs, as Richard Nixon. (Indeed, if the administration does seek to prosecute the reporters who followed up leaks to break the news of its scandals, I suspect the genesis of this campaign will be less the intelligence community's concern for secrets and more Karl Rove's desperate need for an enemy within as midterm elections loom.) But does any or all of this rise to the level of an impeachable offense, or is it merely the kind of thing that lands a president on eternal sizzle in one of Dante's lower loops?

Dereliction of duty and lying us into a war may be mortal sins, but that doesn't make them provable high crimes. Domestic surveillance without a court order, by contrast, does look to be a flat-out violation of the law of the land. But it's hard to believe that Arlen Specter's Judiciary Committee will recommend any punitive action even if it concludes the policy was against the law. For that you'd need a different Judiciary Committee -- one controlled by Democrats.

And for that, of course, the Democrats need to win in November -- a goal that looks increasingly within reach, and the goal on which the growing legions of Bush haters should focus their attentions. To dwell on impeachment now would be to drain energy from the election efforts that need to succeed if impeachment is ever truly to be on the agenda. To insist on support for impeachment as a litmus test for Democratic candidates would be to impede those efforts altogether.

Which doesn't necessarily mean that impeachment would become a good idea even if the Democrats had the votes to push it through. That's an empirical and political judgment that would have to be made at the time. As a general rule, though, bad faith and worse policy should be subject to political remedy, not criminal prosecution, unless there have been crimes so unambiguous and momentous that no political remedy is suitable. The combination of administration misdeeds and the absence of congressional oversight may rightly enrage Americans who still expect a functioning government, but that doesn't make the angriest possible response the best one. Not yet, certainly. Not now, Mom. Not now.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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