Political questions are tricky and complicated. Sometimes causes that are just and good must take a backseat to other priorities or long-term strategies. Setting all such perfectly reasonable considerations aside for a moment, I'd like you to ask yourself a simple yes or no question: Do you think President Bush has committed one or more impeachable offenses?
If you said no, I want to talk to you for a second. If you said yes, let's talk in just a minute but stick around for this first, you'll enjoy it.
"Bush has not committed perjury."
Among those who believe Bush has not committed any impeachable offenses, the most common reason is that he has not lied under oath. But impeachment is a political, not a legal, process Congress is not obliged to let Bush off on any such technicality. And, in any case, it's a technicality that makes no sense, because perjury is one crime among many. Impeachment is the penalty for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. The Constitution says nothing about perjury as a ground for impeachment. And it is a crime to mislead or to defraud Congress, whether or not you do so under oath. When Diane Sawyer asked Bush on television why he had made the claims he had about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction, he replied:
"What's the difference? The possibility that [Saddam] could acquire weapons, if he were to acquire weapons, he would be the danger."
What's the difference? The difference is that had the President merely said that Saddam Hussein could conceivably acquire weapons someday, many people would have opposed his war who supported it. They supported it because Bush said that Saddam had nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and was behind the attacks of 9-11. True, in many instances he avoided making these claims in so many words, and rather implied them. In other cases, he and his subordinates (for whom he is legally responsible), made these claims in the clearest language. In every such case, fraud was committed. Implying and omitting are legally fraud as much as lying is.
But Bush's crimes don't end with fraud or deception. It is illegal to spy in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, something Bush has confessed to doing. It is illegal to detain without charge and to torture, practices that have been well documented, drafted as official White House policy, lobbied for by the Vice President, and possibly retroactively pardoned by the Military Commissions Act (another technicality that is irrelevant to a case for impeachment and, anyway, may soon be reversed). It is illegal to take funds from other projects to begin a war before it has been authorized. It is illegal to target civilians and hospitals and journalists, and to use white phosphorous and napalm as weapons. It is a fundamental violation of the U.S. Constitution to alter laws with signing statements. Congressman John Conyers has published a report listing numerous other laws violated by Bush.
"Bush is too dumb to know he was lying."
Bush's comment to Diane Sawyer above belies this, as do other statements he's made. But as the previous discussion should suggest, Bush's lying is the least of it. In addition to the crimes mentioned above, Bush has failed to perform his duties as president as required of him by the Constitution. His negligence prior to and after 9-11, prior to and after Katrina, and during the ongoing global warming crisis: these are failures of the highest order. Indeed, these are, in the old British phrase that appears in our Constitution: "high crimes and misdemeanors."
"You can't impeach over policy differences. You must impeach for specific legal violations."
We're seeking to impeach over extreme abuses of power. Bush's specific legal violations are too many to list and can begin, again, with the violations of FISA to which Bush has confessed. But impeachment is not a technical, legal question. Among the grounds for Nixon's impeachment, in an Article of Impeachment approved by the House Judiciary Committee, was his lying to the public. The lying cited was his lying about an ongoing investigation and cover-up of his crimes, not his lying about, for example, secretly bombing Cambodia. But Nixon's lying about his investigation, nonetheless, was an impeachable offense without being a crime. It was a "high crime and misdemeanor," an abuse of power.
"Bush has committed impeachable offenses, but impeachment should not be our priority."
OK, now we're back to those of you who believe that Bush has committed impeachable offenses. Most of you also want to see him impeached, but some of you do not. Among those of you who do not, a common theme is a belief that other people disagree with you and will be turned off just by your proposing impeachment. Well, let me ask you this:
Are you a freak?
Do you believe that other people think completely differently from you?
Do you imagine that significant numbers of actual humans believe the rot that Rush Limbaugh is paid to spew?
Newsweek says that 51 percent of Americans want impeachment to be either a high or low priority, while 44 percent oppose it.
Are you in the "make it a low priority" bunch? If so, you may subscribe to one of the four most common reasons for your position:
1. Dick Cheney would become president
2. Impeachment is divisive and partisan
3. Impeachment will make the Democrats lose in 2008
4. There are more pressing issues. We must pass positive legislation.
Let's look at each of these in order.
"Dick Cheney would become president."
Impeachment and removal from office are two different steps. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Investigating Bush or Cheney will incriminate the other. Both will face future criminal indictments, and both will face removal from office. Cheney runs things now backstage to a great extent, so putting him in charge wouldn't change much, but having him as the most unpopular president in history would be a huge political advantage for the Democrats.
Whoever is president after Bush, whether it's Cheney, another Republican, or Nancy Pelosi, he or she will know that the American people can hold them accountable through impeachment. The next election is the time to pick a president. Impeachment and removal from office are only tools for dealing with officials who abuse power, not for selecting their replacements. Whether we remove Bush and then Cheney or Cheney and then Bush, or they both resign, we are likely to end up with some other Republican as president. That president will, like Gerald Ford, probably lose the 2008 election by a considerable margin. The two-thirds vote required in the Senate to remove someone from office will require at least 16 Republicans voting against Bush and/or Cheney. They will do that, or ask Bush or Cheney to resign so that they don't have to (as happened with Nixon), in order to save their own jobs. The political climate will have swung so far against the Republicans during the impeachment and trial, that the Democrats will experience a 2008 landslide.
However, these electoral concerns should not matter in the face of the importance of this impeachment. If we go into 2009 without having held Bush and Cheney accountable, the next president will be a dictator with absolute power outside the bounds of any laws. And he or she will know that a criminal and unpopular vice president is the best protection against enforcement of the law. That's a disaster in the making, regardless of what party the president comes from.
If, on the other hand, we hold Bush accountable through impeachment, we'll all be much safer, whether his replacement is named Cheney, Pelosi, or anything else.
"Impeachment is divisive and partisan."
Our President belongs to a political party, it's true. But that does not make him any less of a threat to our system of government. Voters just rejected his party overwhelmingly. Not a single new Republican was elected, and enough new Democrats won to achieve a substantial majority in the House and a slim one in the Senate. Voters opposed the party of Bush and Cheney, who are incredibly unpopular. Even some Republicans who spoke against the war lost, primarily because they were Republicans. But Republican Ron Paul of Texas, who has spoken in support of impeaching Bush, won.
If Paul and other Republicans manage to put their country ahead of their party's president, as Republicans did during Nixon's presidency, impeachment will not look so partisan. But if Republicans fail to stand for impeachment, then Democrats must do it alone, and doing so will be partisan in the best sense. It will build the Democratic Party into a powerful force for years to come, and it will be divisive primarily on Capitol Hill and in the world of media pundits.
Around the country it will bring us together. Investigations that expose Bush and Cheney's abuses of power will serve to educate many of those who still support them, including those who believe there really were WMDs, there really was a tie to 9-11, Bush was honestly mistaken but meant well, illegal spying is saving us from terrorists, nobody has been tortured, and a signing statement is just something a deaf person tells you with his hands.
To the extent that restoring the rule of law to this country is divisive, so be it. We have just killed 650,000 Iraqis on the basis of blatant lies, and I'm guessing their families found that process a little divisive. We're killing more of them right now. Before our Constitution was put in place, we fought a war with England. That was quite divisive, I imagine. Surely offending a few uncles and brothers in law who believe things that Fox News tells them is a price we can well afford to pay.
"Impeachment will make the Democrats lose in 2008."
The historical record suggests that this is all wrong. When the Democrats held back from impeachment during Iran Contra, they lost the next elections. And many of the people they failed to go after came back in the form of the Bush Jr. Administration to make life hell for the Democrats and the rest of us. When the Democrats led the effort to investigate and impeach Nixon, they won big in the next election, even though Ford was running as an incumbent. When the Republicans tried to impeach Truman, they got what they wanted out of the Supreme Court and then won the next elections. Articles of Impeachment have been filed against nine presidents, usually by Republicans, and usually with electoral success following. When the Republicans impeached Clinton, impeachment was actually unpopular with the public. Even so, the Republicans lost far fewer seats than is the norm for a majority party at that point in its tenure. Two years later, they lost seats in the Senate, which had acquitted, but maintained their strength in the House, with representatives who had led the impeachment charge winning big. Voters appreciate efforts to push for a cause. Cowardice and restraint are not very popular.
"There are more pressing issues. We must pass positive legislation."
More pressing than restoring the right to not be spied on, to not be picked up without charge and locked away to be tortured with no access to a lawyer, a trial, or your family, to not be sent to war for greed and power? Of course, there are many pressing areas in which we need to pass legislation. But the outgoing Republican Congress passed some important bills, including those banning torture and illegal spying. But Bush used signing statements to announce his intention to disobey those laws.
Under the new Congress Bush may begin vetoing legislation, but more likely I think he will continue to use signing statements. In either case, bills will be passed but policy will remain unchanged.
Some important bills, such as one to cut off funding for the war and redirect it to bringing our troops home, caring for them once they get home, reconstructing Iraq, and investing in America some important bills like this one will not even be passed, because the Democrats do not have the decency to pass them. If, however, they hold hearings exposing the fraud that launched the war, the crimes committed during the war, and the waste of taxpayer money on war profiteers, they may build the political momentum needed to both pass a bill ending the war and remove from office a president who will not end the war even if Congress demands it.
If you believe that Bush can be made to end the war, you still must be aware that there are many committees in Congress, and that they cannot all be occupied fulltime with a task that requires 10 minutes' work: ending the war. If some committees expose the crimes of the war and the crime that is the war, will that help or hurt the cause of ending it? And if we end it, but the man who started it faces no penalty, will that make it more or less likely that a future president will launch a similar war?