By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 25, 2006
HOLYOKE, Mass. -- To drive through the mill towns and curling country roads here is to journey into New England's impeachment belt. Three of this state's 10 House members have called for the investigation and possible impeachment of President Bush.
Thirty miles north, residents in four Vermont villages voted earlier this month at annual town meetings to buy more rock salt, approve school budgets, and impeach the president for lying about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction and for sanctioning torture.
Window cleaner Ira Clemons put down his squeegee in the lobby of a city mall and stroked his goatee as he considered the question: Would you support your congressman's call to impeach Bush? His smile grew until it looked like a three-quarters moon.
"Why not? The man's been lying from Jump Street on the war in Iraq," Clemons said. "Bush says there were weapons of mass destruction, but there wasn't. Says we had enough soldiers, but we didn't. Says it's not a civil war -- but it is." He added: "I was really upset about 9/11 -- so don't lie to me."
It would be a considerable overstatement to say the fledgling impeachment movement threatens to topple a presidency -- there are just 33 House co-sponsors of a motion by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) to investigate and perhaps impeach Bush, and a large majority of elected Democrats think it is a bad idea. But talk bubbles up in many corners of the nation, and on the Internet, where several Web sites have led the charge, giving liberals an outlet for anger that has been years in the making.
"The value of a powerful idea, like impeachment of the president for criminal acts, is that it has a long shelf life and opens a debate," said Bill Goodman of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents Guantanamo Bay detainees.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted last month to urge Congress to impeach Bush, as have state Democratic parties, including those of New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin. A Zogby International poll showed that 51 percent of respondents agreed that Bush should be impeached if he lied about Iraq, a far greater percentage than believed President Bill Clinton should be impeached during the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.
And Harper's Magazine this month ran a cover piece titled "The Case for Impeachment: Why We Can No Longer Afford George W. Bush."
"If the president says 'We made mistakes,' fine, let's move on," said Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.). "But if he lied to get America into a war, I can't imagine anything more impeachable."
Democrats remain far from unified. Prominent party leaders -- and a large majority of those in Congress -- distance themselves from the effort. They say the very word is a distraction, that talk of impeachment and censure reflect the polarization of politics. Activists spend too many hours dialing Democratic politicians and angrily demanding impeachment votes, they say.
In California, poet Kevin Hearle, an impeachment supporter, is challenging liberal Rep. Tom Lantos -- who opposes impeachment -- in the Democratic primary in June.
"Impeachment is an outlet for anger and frustration, which I share, but politics ain't therapy," said Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts liberal who declined to sign the Conyers resolution. "Bush would much rather debate impeachment than the disastrous war in Iraq."
The GOP establishment has welcomed the threat. It has been a rough patch for the party -- Bush's approval ratings in polls are lower than for any president in recent history. With midterm elections in the offing, Republican leaders view impeachment as kerosene poured on the bonfires of their party base.
"The Democrats' plan for 2006?" Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman wrote in a fundraising e-mail Thursday. "Take the House and Senate and impeach the president. With our nation at war, is this the kind of Congress you want?"
The argument for an impeachment inquiry -- which draws support from prominent constitutional scholars such as Harvard's Laurence H. Tribe and former Reagan deputy attorney general Bruce Fein -- centers on Bush's conduct before and after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
It is argued that Bush and his officials conspired to manufacture evidence of weapons of mass destruction to persuade Congress to approve the invasion. Former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill told CBS News's "60 Minutes" that "from the very beginning there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go . . . it was all about finding a way to do it." And a senior British intelligence official wrote in what is now known as the "Downing Street memo" that Bush officials were intent on fixing "the intelligence and the facts . . . around the policy."
Critics point to Bush's approval of harsh interrogations of prisoners captured Iraq and Afghanistan, tactics that human rights groups such as Amnesty International say amount to torture. Bush also authorized warrantless electronic surveillance of telephone calls and e-mails, subjecting possibly thousands of Americans each year to eavesdropping since 2001.
"Bush is saying 'I'm the president' and, on a range of issues -- from war to torture to illegal surveillance -- 'I can do as I like,' " said Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "This administration needs to be slapped down and held accountable for actions that could change the shape of our democracy."
Tribe wrote Conyers, dismissing Bush's defense of warrantless surveillance as "poppycock." It constituted, Tribe concluded, "as grave an abuse of executive authority as I can recall ever having studied."
But posed against this bill of aggrievement are legal and practical realities. Not all scholars, even of a liberal bent, agree that Bush has committed "high crimes and misdemeanors." Bush's legal advice may be wrong, they say, but still reside within the bounds of reason.
"The Clinton impeachment was plainly unconstitutional, and a Bush impeachment would be nearly as bad," said Cass R. Sunstein, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago. "There is a very good argument that the president had it wrong on WMD in Iraq but that he was acting in complete good faith."
Sunstein argues that Bush's decision to conduct surveillance of Americans without court approval flowed from Congress's vote to allow an armed struggle against al-Qaeda. "If you can kill them, why can't you spy on them?" Sunstein said, adding that this is a minority view.
Here in Massachusetts and Vermont, though, in the back roads and on the streets of Holyoke and Springfield, the discontent with Bush is palpable. These are states that, per capita, have sent disproportionate numbers of soldiers to Iraq. Many in these middle- and working-class towns are not pleased that so many friends and cousins are coming back wounded or dead.
"He picks and chooses his information and can't admit it's erroneous, and he annoys me," said Colleen Kucinski, walking Aleks, 5, and Gregory, 2, home.
Would she support impeachment? Kucinski wags her head "yes" before the question is finished. "Without a doubt. This is far more serious than Clinton and Monica. This is about life and death. We're fighting a war on his say-so and it was all wrong."