The Trouble with Impeachment

You may recall the scene in Clint Eastwood's 1992 Western Unforgiven where Eastwood's character levels his gun at Gene Hackman's malevolent sheriff, whom he is about to dispatch to hell's lower depths. "I don't deserve this," Hackman protests. "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it," Eastwood replies, and pulls the trigger.

And that -- a touch overstated, I'll admit -- is pretty much my position on impeachment. Does George W. Bush deserve to be impeached? Absolutely. Problem is, that doesn't resolve the question of whether trying to impeach Bush (and, necessarily, Dick Cheney, too) is a good idea. And when I consider the moral imperatives of this moment -- ending the involvement of U.S. forces in the Iraq War, providing the American people with secure and universal health care, even ratcheting back the unchecked executive power that Bush and his vice president have substituted for our system of checks and balances -- I conclude, sadly, that an attempt to impeach Bush will make these goals even harder to achieve. "Deserve" does has something to do with it, but not enough to carry the day. At least, not this day.

The case of Alberto Gonzales presents us with a closer call. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may protest that she won't consider the impeachment option, but with each passing week, Gonzales seems increasingly determined to challenge her resolve. Telling lie upon lie to protect his president and himself, Gonzales seems bent on making himself impeachment's poster child.

At the rate Gonzales is going, Congress may find impeachment thrust upon it. Both legally and politically, the case against Gonzales is stronger than the case against Bush and Cheney. On the legal front, Gonzales testifies before Congress, as Bush and Cheney do not, and thus is subject to charges of perjury, as they are not. Politically, ousting Gonzales would not turn over the executive branch to the opposition party, as ousting Bush and Cheney would.

Nonetheless, the case against Bush and Cheney is a strong one, and should not be lightly dismissed. In fighting their endless and deliberately ill-defined war on terrorism, they have violated the legal guarantees of habeas corpus; they have spied on Americans without the oversight of courts or Congress; they have authorized the torture of prisoners, in violation of the Geneva Conventions, and the kidnapping of suspects in a number of nations. Their case for going to war in Iraq was fundamentally based on misrepresentations, though making a legal case that they knowingly lied to get us into the war would be difficult. Most serious of all is the damage they've done to the Constitution, most particularly to its painstaking system of checks and balances. They have governed with the premise that in a time of war such as this, the executive can act without the oversight, or even the knowledge, of Congress and the courts. And it is Bush and Cheney themselves who get to define this as a time of war.

This kind of assault on the Constitution is precisely what the founding fathers were guarding against when they crafted its language on impeachment. In The Federalist Papers, Hamilton and Madison made clear that impeachment was a remedy not so much for indictable crimes as for those offenses that subverted the system of government itself. That, fundamentally, is what Bush and Cheney are guilty of. It is why they deserve to be impeached and convicted.

Would that "deserve" were all! But there are three considerations that outweigh the very real case for the merits of impeachment.

First, there's no way that there will be sufficient votes to remove Bush and Cheney from office. Conviction requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate. In other words, even if Joe Lieberman were to join the Senate's 50 Democrats in finding Bush and Cheney guilty, an additional 16 Republican senators would also have to join them.

It would be easier to find 16 Republican votes for collective farms. For one thing, Republicans already know what all of us know. They know about the wiretapping, the renditions, the torture; they know about the vice president's pathological secrecy that has done so much to subvert the constitutional balance of powers. Some (including most of their presidential candidates) are on record supporting these policies; none have been moved to suggest these policies may be grounds for impeachment.

Nor are the political circumstances of this impeachment remotely analogous to those that produced the bipartisan consensus to remove Richard Nixon from the White House. Republicans finally supported impeachment then because they knew that Nixon would be succeeded by one of their own -- Republican Gerald Ford. But removing Bush and Cheney would make Pelosi (literally, the San Francisco Democrat) president -- a change that would result in a massive shift in every policy that Republicans care about. Our army in Iraq would come home. Health insurance for children would become law. Gays and lesbians -- well, God knows what would happen with gays and lesbians. The Justice Department would be handed over to the Democrats; every department would be handed over to the Democrats. The power to appoint a Supreme Court justice, should one of the current justices abruptly keel over, would belong to Pelosi.

In short, there is no way imaginable that Republicans would vote to remove Cheney and Bush. Not only would their removal hand the government over to the Democrats, it would also undercut the presidential campaign of their 2008 nominee. How could he run against the very policies that Republican senators effectively allowed by making Pelosi president?

(Also, consider for a moment Pelosi's dilemma: If she allows impeachment proceedings against Bush and Cheney to get underway, she'll be attacked for seeking to become an unelected president. If Bush and Cheney are convicted, she will become an unelected president, which is why this attack will have some potency.)

Which brings us to the second reason why impeachment is a bad idea: Politically, it will most likely boomerang. Some of impeachment's proponents suggest that even if there's no plausible way Bush and Cheney could be removed, the educational value of the process -- reminding Americans of their fundamental constitutional rights, of the genius of our system, as indeed happened during the Nixon impeachment hearings -- would be beneficial in itself. And here, too, impeachment's proponents would be right, if this education were all that came out of the process. Unfortunately, it won't be.

The Republicans' current strategy for retaking Congress and discrediting the Democrats is to obstruct all the Democrats' legislative initiatives and then accuse them of being a Do-Nothing Congress. The failure of Congress to enact legislation -- the Democrats' campaign promises to the contrary notwithstanding -- has surely been a factor in Congress' plummeting approval rating. Still, the Democrats maintain a distinct advantage over the Republicans in all the polling, in part because a good chunk of the public knows who's to blame for Congress' inaction.

Should Democrats begin impeachment hearings, Republicans will allege that Democrats have essentially stopped everything on Capitol Hill to pursue an impeachment process that will not result in conviction, solely for partisan political gain. A vast portion of the mainstream media will echo the Republicans' attacks, portraying the process as a partisan dogfight, and focusing so much of their coverage on impeachment that anything else the Democrats might accomplish would be relegated to a box on page 23.

"Impeachment," says Guy Molyneux, a veteran Democratic pollster, "could be the one thing that makes this Republican attack seem credible."

More than that, it would make far more difficult the task of collecting enough Republican votes to change policy on the war. It surely would unite and energize a Republican base that is now both confused and enervated. Just as surely, absent a smoking howitzer, impeachment would divide Democrats on a fundamental matter of strategy, at the very moment when Democrats are more unified than they've been in decades. Impeachment would even eclipse Iraq as the main issue before the nation.

In short, impeachment certainly looks more likely to help Republicans than Democrats at the polls in 2008. And to those who argue that the process would make it harder for any future presidents, including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John Edwards, to abuse their power, I'd say that American civil liberties and our balance of power would be a good deal safer under any of those leaders -- even if there is no educational impeachment process creating a new awareness of the Constitution -- than under Rudy Giuliani, whose record suggests he'd be every bit as authoritarian as Cheney. One does not have to be rosy-eyed about the Democratic presidential candidates to think that the Constitution will be in far greater peril if the Republican front-runner ends up in the White House than if any of them do. Ironically, by bolstering the Republicans, the political consequences of trying to protect the Constitution through the impeachment process may well end up endangering the Constitution far more than if impeachment had not been pursued.

The third reason for shunning the impeachment option is not, unlike the other two, fundamentally political. It is the problem with establishing as a precedent the removal of a president and vice president of one party and conferring the presidency on the House speaker from another party, who's been sent to Congress by an electorate that constitutes just one-435th of the nation. Legal though it may be, such a process would raise huge doubts about the political legitimacy of the new president. And it's not hard to imagine this weapon, once established, being wielded by an intemperate Congress against a president and vice president with nowhere near the culpability of Bush and Cheney.

So, then: Do Bush and Cheney deserve to be impeached and convicted? Of course. Will they dwell forever in historians' hell? Count on it. Chomped on in the company of Brutus and Judas? Just possibly. But is impeachment a good idea? No!

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