Why Impeachment Isn't Happening: It's Not What You Think
It has become clear by now that there is currently an enormous groundswell of support for impeachment proceedings throughout the progressive blogosphere, as traditionally "pragmatist" opponents of impeachment are falling one by one by one. The shift in sentiment towards impeachment has been especially strong in the face of a couple of crystallizing events, most notably Cheney's late fourthbranch defense and the White House's adamant refusal to obey subpoenas.
Predictably, the failure of Congressional Democrats to make serious moves toward the submission of Articles of Impeachment--and no, neither Leahy's subpoenas nor the support of eleven representatives count as serious moves--has ignited a firestorm of criticism from all corners of the blogosphere.
Typically, the blogosphere's critiques of both our progressive and not-so-progressive Democrats in office focus on their supposed cowardice in the face of the Bush Administration and their Republican opponents. These Democrats are supposed to be risk-averse DLC-infested reeds in the political wind, taking the least controversial stands possible in the hopes of winning elections by the backdoor of the Republicans' own political suicide. And certainly, it would appear that this portrait of ineffectual and pusillanimous "leadership" was on full display during the so-called Iraq Supplemental battle in which Democrats pretended to stand against Bush's illegal Occupation, and then caved for fear of being seen as failing to "fund the troops." Our Democratic leadership does have a history of betraying its own base and even a majority of the American People in order, it would seem, to avoid making waves.
But there is another explanation besides simple weakness and aversion to risk that explains the Democrats' stance on both the Occupation of Iraq, and on Impeachment. Fear of the Bush Administration itself is hardly motivating Democrats: we know that Bush has lost all credibility with even his base, much less the American public. Fear of policy-centered counterattacks from Republicans in congress and their corporatist allies in the media is somewhat more compelling--but even this is not so scary, given that the public supports the Democratic position on every major policy issue. And Democrats like Rahm Emmanuel are not afraid to take otherwise strong stands against such abuses as Cheney's FourthBranch arguments with brilliant counterattacks.
More than anything else, it seems, the Democrats are afraid of being characterized as playing petty politics with critical issues of governance. When we distill the arguments against defunding the Occupation and against submitting Articles of Impeachment down to their core, the same fundamental arguments always rear their ugly heads. On Iraq, everyone knows that the Surge is a disaster; everyone knows that the public has soured against it; everyone knows that the "flypaper defense" is discredited. But the argument that stops defunding in its tracks is the one in which Democrats are accused of playing politics with the lives of our troops.
On Impeachment, it would seem that this argument would be harder to make. How, after all, could the grave and solemn process of the impeachment of a sitting Commander in Chief (and/or his Vice President and/or Attorney General) be seen as a game of petty politics? How could anything be more important and worthy of discussion than an argument over whether the nation's leading official and so-called Leader of the Free World has violated his oath of office and trampled our sacred Constitution? How could such a grandiose undertaking pale in importance compared with any other piece of business considered by the Legislature?
It is in the answer to this question that we see the rotten fruits of the Republican effort to impeach Bill Clinton for trivial sexual escapades based on a long-running and hugely wasteful investigatory witch-hunt. Just as the Ann Coulters and Bill O'Reillys of the world have soured the American appetite for political debate and lowered the bar for political discourse to nearly subhuman levels, so too has the Republican slash-and-burn way of doing politics trivialized and cheapened even the most monumental decisions made in representative government. Impeachment today is seen not as political capital punishment to be prosecuted only under the direst of constitution-threatening circumstances, but rather as just another toy in the partisan political sandbox.
American distaste not only for Republican rule but also for partisan games is at an all-time high right now. We have a record number of Independent-affiliated voters, while both the Presidency and the Congress both have shockingly low confidence ratings indicative of a broader crisis of confidence; meanwhile, the candidacy of a relatively unknown New York corporatist billionaire is attracting far more public support than it otherwise should--even as partisan members of both parties look to candidates not currently running (Gore, Thompson) to save them from the current crop on both sides. Obama's rhetoric of Purple Power is attracting otherwise non-political voters all across America.
It is the great tragedy of the Clinton years--and of the failure by Democrats to stand adequately strongly against Republican abuses of political processes during the '90s and beyond--that Impeachment itself has come to be seen not as an essential tool of accountability for an executive run amok, but rather as another distasteful partisan ploy.
Most incredibly, what we are seeing from various sources in conversation with officials ranging from Nancy Pelosi herself to House staffers is that Democrats see a greater opportunity for boldness and political impact in the passing of legislation--even in the face of vetoes from Mr. 26%--than in moves toward impeachment. To the minds of those who purport to represent the American People, actually passing effective legislation after years of Republican misrule is considered more novel and less like politics-as-usual than the most momentous actions possible in defense of the United States Constitution. Impeachment is not being avoided due to its boldness, but rather (shockingly enough) due to its banality.
So what do we do?
With all due respect to Major Danby, a good friend whose opinion I greatly respect, a minimalist impeachment agenda is the worst of all possible worlds. It's not that the Overton Window doesn't need to be moved on the subject of impeachment; it does. But it needs to be moved in a way that most progressive bloggers aren't currently considering. The problem isn't that the American Public does not oppose the Bush Administration strongly enough to make impeachment politically viable; they do. It's that impeachment itself is seen as too petty and partisan for what currently ails the country. Attempting to make impeachment palatable to the American Public and to fence-sitting Democratic legislators through a gradual, minimalist stance focusing on obstruction of justice will not work, because impeachment is already seen as too petty and political an action for what ails our democracy. Moreover, a minimalist approach to impeachment will not serve as adequate warning to the next out-of-control President who chooses to arrogate to him/herself Bush's theory of Executive Power.
If we want impeachment to work, we have to throw the book at these people in a way that is not currently being done at the highest levels. If we want the public to understand that impeachment is a necessary duty to hold Bush and his allies accountable for deeply criminal actions rather than a cheap political ploy, our legislators must not be afraid to accuse them of deeply criminal action. We must make it clear to the American people that we are not defending some idealistic notion of the defense of Constitutional Principles, but rather opposing an Administration responsible for villainy and criminality unprecedented in modern American History. The Articles of Impeachment themselves must look less like Fitzgerald's case against Scooter Libby, and more like Thomas Jefferson's case against King George III.
Most importantly, our legislators must be made to see not only the necessity of impeachment itself, but of not mincing their words when it comes to describing Administration activities. They must not be afraid to use the words "liars", "blatantly illegal and unconstitutional", "criminal activity", "unprecedented abuses of power", or even "treason". Until we see our legislators actually using these sorts of words and phrases, we will know that they do not consider the state of affairs in America desperate enough to require impeachment. More importantly, the public will not be inclined to see the Bush Administration as dangerous enough to our way of life to merit the necessity of impeachment as a means of national self-defense, rather than as a petty partisan tool.
The hard work is just beginning. If we want to defend our Constitution and our country, the political discourse is going to have to get worse before it gets better. If we want our legislators and the American People to see impeachment not as a partisan move for naked political power but as a bold move for freedom, we must first convince them of its sheer necessity through some fairly ugly (if painfully accurate) words. If impeachment is to become extraordinary again rather than banal, we must convince the people that the times themselves are extraordinary.
Obviously, we still have a great deal of work to do.
Also at MLW