The Dumbest Move the Dems Could Make

By Michael Tomasky
Sunday, August 5, 2007

"Impeach or else!"

That was the headline that one liberal Web site ran over a recent interview with the antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, who has been demanding that President Bush and Vice President Cheney be chucked out of office. But the Bush administration isn't her only target. Sheehan is so frustrated with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- who declared impeachment "off the table" even before the Democrats took control of Congress -- that she is threatening to run against her.

The speaker may think impeachment is off the table, but the I-word is being tossed about pretty freely in some left-leaning circles these days. The idea was first mentioned by a hardy band of Bush foes as long ago as the immediate aftermath of the 2000 Florida recount. Today, my e-mail inbox bubbles with notices of fresh and scandalous counts just waiting to be added to the bill of indictment.

Even a few Republicans have bruited about the idea. Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), speaking to Esquire magazine about Bush's hostility toward democratic accountability, said that "before this is over, you might see calls for his impeachment." Bruce Fein, a Reagan administration veteran and conservative legal scholar, has aimed his gunsight at Cheney, producing a scathing denunciation in Slate of the vice president's high crimes and misdemeanors -- even describing one, the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens, as "indistinguishable from Louis XVI's execrated lettres de cachet that occasioned the storming of the Bastille." Mon Dieu!

In the midst of this came an American Research Group poll in early July that found that 45 percent of respondents would support impeachment proceedings against Bush and 54 percent would back moving against Cheney. With even some conservatives and apparently many independents favoring impeachment, you'd think that liberals would be unanimous in their desire to invoke Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution and get the show on the road, right?

But wait. Today is the wrap-up day of the annual YearlyKos convention, organized by the Web site, often described by the mainstream media as the nerve center of unhinged leftism. Last week, I went to the YearlyKos site to see how the topic would be handled there. I found a list of about 175 panels and seminars on topics as disparate as "The Art of the Killer Campaign Ad," "Rural Issues: America Is Really Purple and Proud?" and "The Military and Progressives: Are They That Different?" But there was no panel on impeachment.

There's little disagreement among liberals about the substance. If any administration since President Richard M. Nixon's has committed high crimes and misdemeanors, surely it's this one; if lying about consensual sexual activity fit the bill, then surely lying about the reason for a war does, too. As Dave Lindorff and Barbara Olshansky argue in their indignant book "The Case for Impeachment," the bill of indictment goes far beyond Bush's grave lies about Iraq. There's also the arrest and detention without trial of U.S. citizens, the violation of international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions at the prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the "blatant violation" of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Fourth Amendment "by secretly authorizing secret warrantless spying on thousands of American citizens by the National Security Agency."

The political case, though, is another question entirely. Impeachment is not merely a bad idea, but the single worst course of action that Democrats could possibly undertake -- the only thing they could do that might, in one stroke, convert Bush from the figure of contempt and mockery he is now into one of vague sympathy. Just as bad, it's the one move that would definitively alienate nonideological voters and, therefore, harm the Democrats' otherwise excellent chances for winning congressional seats and the White House in 2008. And that's just what impeachment would do to the Democrats. Even worse is what it would do to liberalism and to the country.

You don't have to be as expert a nose counter as Lyndon B. Johnson to know that impeachment wouldn't succeed. You'd have to get both Bush and Cheney to make any difference, which makes it a heavier lift. Even if the articles of impeachment somehow got through the House -- a stretch, because 61 Democrats represent nominally "red" districts and thus may feel compelled to vote nay -- conviction would require 67 votes in the Senate. That means at least 18 Republicans would have to vote to remove a Republican president and vice president. (I'm assuming that Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, an independent, would vote no.) Of course, new bombshells could change all that. But for now, impeachment advocates are urging Democrats to start a fight they'd lose.

Well, the Sheehan camp says, Republicans' failure to convict President Bill Clinton in 1999 didn't seem to hurt them in 2000, when they took the presidency and retained control of both houses of Congress. True enough, but that argument assumes that the parties are identical beasts. They emphatically are not. Republicans would be far more adept at turning a failed impeachment effort to their advantage in 2008 than the Democrats were in 2000. Back then, Al Gore, his handlers and Democrats in general sought to run from Clinton and push the conversation back to that bland terrain to which defensive Democrats always scamper: "the issues." Republicans, who aren't usually defensive and don't generally scamper, would make impeachment the issue, and by Election Day 2008, the GOP would have millions of Americans believing that -- get this -- the really merciless partisans of the Bush era were the Democrats.

One of the Democrats' strongest arguments for 2008, regardless of their nominee, will be that it's time for the country to set aside rampant partisanship and ideologically driven government. Impeachment would take away that argument.

Here we sit, in the summer of 2007: For the first time since the advent of modern conservatism in the 1950s, average Americans have seen a conservative government fail them, and massively. This has created an opening for liberalism unlike any since the early 1960s. Middle-of-the-road nonideological voters are more willing than they have been in decades to give our side a look.

And at this precise moment of potential, if the impeachment forces have their way, we will show those voters not how we can pull the country together but that we also know a thing or two about pulling it apart.

Bush and Cheney -- and conservatism in general -- have wrecked our civic institutions and darkened our civic impulses. Nothing is beyond politicization: not the Justice Department; not the worst terrorist attacks on our soil; not the scientists and nonpartisan experts who've been silenced or demoted because they didn't toe the right line; for goodness sake, not the National Park Service, which, in a sop to biblical literalists, was forced to offer pamphlets for sale at the Grand Canyon gift shop putting forth the "different view" that the great chasm was cut 4,500 years ago by Noah's flood, not 6 million years ago, as is the case here on Earth.

When everything is subordinate to politics, civic institutions and impulses suffer. But impeachment isn't the way to rebuild civic culture; indeed, it would do its own kind of harm. In that same poll in which 45 percent of Americans supported opening impeachment proceedings, 46 percent opposed doing so. Do we really want to drag the country through that? The thought of it -- months of rancor, name-calling and mud-slinging that would almost certainly end in defeat for the impeachers -- depresses me beyond words. It would damage liberalism's prospects in the long run because unlike conservatism, liberalism depends on and is predicated on civic trust. Maybe not next year, but sometime, in some way, the fact that we will have served as accomplices to that erosion will come back to bite us.

There are plenty of ways to hold the administration accountable that don't carry so high a price. Last I looked, Democrats were doing a pretty aggressive job of it. According to Pelosi's office, 13 high-ranking administration officials have resigned rather than face genuine congressional oversight. By all means, put the anger there. But impeachment is exactly the wrong step to take at exactly the wrong historical moment.

Michael Tomasky is editor of Guardian America,

a Web site that will be launched in September, and a contributing editor at the American Prospect.

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