What Impeachment Is, and What It Must Not Be
Many in the blogosphere will undoubtedly have seen my recent change of heart diary concerning the Impeachment of George W. Bush. In that piece, I argued that Bush's continued intransigence about the idea that he has the power to wilfully deny the authority of Congress' laws over the Executive Branch leads to a constitutional crisis for which impeachment is the only possible solution. I argued that impeachment must be pursued in spite what will certainly be political costs and lost opportunities for progressive framing and legislation.
Such a position, however, does not mean that any and all calls for Impeachment are productive or desirable regardless of their merits. The Impeachment of a sitting president is a solemn and serious affair which must be carried out only under extreme duress and with clear and unassailable justification. Failure to demonstrate such will lead inevitably to public backlash--as the Republicans discovered to their surprise in the wake of their trivial impeachment of Clinton for trivial concerns.
Indeed, the consequences of impeaching a sitting president are so politically profound, the effects so far-reaching, and the political karma so inscrutably dangerous that Impeachment must only be pursued for the gravest of reasons, and when all other alternative options have been exhausted or rendered impossible.
To me, Bush's radical interpretation of Executive power is exactly such a circumstance. When the President declares himself a dictator accountable to no law of Congress and no Judicial order, the only threat to which he could possibly respond is that of forcible removal from office either by Impeachment (or by military coup, which I hope never happens in America--or all is lost.)
But there are far too many progressives so desperate to see this criminal removed from office that they are willing to use any reason and any justification as a basis for Presidential Impeachment. And we mustn't do that--because each and every blatantly partisan or inadequate justification for impeachment weakens the rhetorical power of its absolute necessity.
The following are inadequate and insufficient reasons for Impeachment:
1. Being a Republican.
Impeachment, cannot, must not, and WILL not be used as a handy shortcut for removing a member of the opposite party from office just because you find his/her policies distasteful, immoral, or insane. Some say that George Bush is a murderer on the basis of his policies in Iraq; some also say that Democrats are murderers on the basis of their abortion policies. Neither is a sound argument for impeachment.
2. Lying to the American People.
Unfortunately, lying to the American people is not an impeachable offense. Every president in this century has lied to the American people on countless occasions. Lying to the American people seems to be a universal tactic of American politicians, and this president is no exception.
3. Starting a war based on false pretenses.
I know this one is tough to swallow, but starting a war based on false pretenses is NOT an impeachable offense. It is deeply disgusting, but it is not a High Crime or Misdemeanor per se. Those who would argue that Bush must be impeached for starting the Iraq War would have found it necessary to impeach Reagan for his actions in Grenada and Nicaragua; to impeach Lyndon Johnson for escalating the Vietnam War after the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident; to impeach FDR if it could be shown that he was warned of the possibility of the Pearl Harbor attacks; to impeach McKinley for starting the Spanish-American war on the basis of the trumped-up sinking of the Maine; even possibly to have impeached Lincoln for starting an unnecessary war against a set of states that simply wished to secede from the American union.
4. Actual impeachable crimes that cannot be proved.
We may know good and goddamn well that the Bush Administration rigged at least two elections. We may know good and goddamn well that the Bush Administration intentionally outed a covert CIA agent for reasons of political payback. We may know good and goddamn well that explicit order were given for the torture of U.S. citizens, residents and captives within U.S. custody. But we can't prove any of it in a court of law. And because impeachment is a LEGAL proceeding, such insubstantial accusations of very substantial crimes cannot be used as justifications. As they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
5. Prevention of FUTURE crimes/depradations/invasions
Impeaching a President pre-emptively out of fear of what he might do next (like, say, bombing Iran) is as legally and morally injustifiable as invading another country out of fear that they might be making WMDs that they would then sell to terrorists. In the case of political trials as in wars, prevention is never a legitimate reason.
Sheer incompetence is not a High Crime or Misdemeanor. Allowing an entire American city to drown because you were too naive, stupid, incompetent and indifferent to care may be unconscionable, but it is not a crime. Allowing an entire war/occupation to go bust because you were too naive, stupid, incompetent, and ideologically driven to do it right may be evil, but it is not an impeachable offense. And while we're at it...
Count Dracula could be president. Satan himself
is could be vice-president. A resurrected Adolf Hitler could be Secretary of Defense. Jeffrey Dahmer could be the Secretary of Homeland Security. But until you can prove that they have committed an actual crime, the knowledge that they may be evil incarnate is not an adequate justification for impeachment.
8. Violation of International Law.
While this is the most credible justification for impeachment of any named so far, it is nevertheless quite weak. The legal challenges to the authority of international law over domestic law are numerous and daunting. The idea of International Law itself has limited popularity. As a general rule, if we can't find a decent, home-grown AMERICAN law to impeach the President with, we probably shouldn't be doing it at all.
Above all, Congress and the Courts have the ability and authority to mitigate the effects of all of these concerns through processes OTHER than impeachment, which must be used as a last resort.
That, among other reasons, is why I have chosen to let the Presidential signing statements be my line in the sand. They are clearly and blatantly unconstitutional. They are brazen in their violation of the framers' intent. And most importantly, their very dictatorial and power-usurping nature allows for no other recourse than the President's forcible removal.
Let each person draw their own line in the sand on what constitutes grounds for impeachment in their own mind.
But let us also not fall prey to such desperation to remove this Republican, mendacious, warmongering, conspiratorial, dangerous, incompetent, evil and shameless man from power that we attempt to use any of the preceeding adjectives as legal grounds for his Impeachment.
Let us stay focused; let us stay rigorous; let us stay determined; let us stay just; and above all, let us stay as true to our Constitution as Bush has been untrue.