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A Bridge Too Far?

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The Democratic caucus unanimously elected Nancy Pelosi yesterday as its choice for Speaker of the House.  In January, when the new Congress takes over, she will be elected by the full House, the Democratic majority insuring that outcome.  It is a blue ribbon day for women in politics in America, for no woman has ever before achieved this level in our government.  Yes, there have been governors of big states, like Texas, but never on the national scene has a woman been elected to such a position.  She will succeed to the Presidency when the Vice President is unavailable to succeed.

We think that Nancy Pelosi is a remarkable woman and politician.  She learned her trade in the best possible situation—"retail politics," as she termed it recently—in her parents' home in Baltimore, when her father was Mayor of that city.  She is a bonafide Liberal and proud of it.  She knows the FDR, Truman, and Kennedy legacy like the back of her hand.  She will do well, if she can keep the fractious Party she leads in order.  She is off to a bumpy start on that. Later on Thursday the Democrats declined to elect Jack Murtha and his borderline ethics to the Majority Leader position.  Nancy wanted him there, but she lost that one.  Politics is a lot like golf.  You drive, you continue with a long or medium iron, you pitch onto the green, putt, and finally write down your score.  In other words in golf you use a variety of tools to get the job done, but the next hole is a brand new adventure, and if you glory in a birdie or eagle on the last hole, or if you get down in the dumps about a bogie, you will surely do poorly on the next hole.  You have to dust yourself off and play the game that you create.

The decision of the Democrats to not give Nancy Pelosi her staunch supporter, a person whom she believed she could trust to guard her flanks and her back, is not a failure of Nancy's political judgment. She knows full well how to count, after all, and she knew that coming out for Murtha was a cause with not much likelihood of a perfect payoff. What she did was to telegraph  ahead that she felt like she needed to have a close-knit team to support her in the special circumstances of George Bush's two lame-duck years in office, and especially in consideration of the fact that there are still Republicans in the House, not the moderates, many of whom were removed from office in last week's election, but the truculent diehards and radicals who have done such a bang up job legislating for this nation.  She telegraphed ahead that she needed to be secure in her base because she is dealing with an incompetent President and his wily, cunning, and immoral political advisor, Karl Rove, and will have her hands full.  She also signalled to Steny Hoyer that she would confront him now and always when he betrays the Party and joins the war hawks.  The Democrats in their wisdom, though, decided that Murtha was too dirty, too involved in borderline issues relating to his brother's business and bringing spoils to his district in Pennsylvania.  They decided that it would be necessary to show a more squeaky clean leadership to the nation, given Nancy's own declaration that the next Congress would be the cleanest, most civil, most open Congress ever.

Steny Hoyer is a moderate, representing folks both inside and outside the beltway in Maryland, a person whose Liberalism may rightfully be considered suspect.  He is not a friend of Pelosi (and may even have a sizable grudge against her for the defeat she handed to him for the Minority Leadership).  Now that he has won the Leadership position he will be called upon to expand his political horizons to accomplish the Democratic Party's program.  He can do it, but he should understand that the #2 position in the House is #2! 

The larger questions looming behind everything are these.  Did Nancy Pelosi have something else in mind when she asked for a tight-knit leadership team?  Put another way: will the House, including John Conyers, continue to stand by Nancy's declaration that impeachment is "off the table?"

Impeachment is not just the process alluded to in the Constitution.  Impeachment is a social process that involves the egos and ethics of the House of Representatives and of the Senate when it comes time for the trial.  But, far more important than those aspects is the involvement of the whole society.  Impeachment is "off the table" (for now) because it is a process that brings to a head an emotional process involving everyone.  In the case of Clinton, for instance, the impeachment was literally for lying under oath (and not under oath) to the American people.  But the force of Clinton's "sin" was not lying, it was sexual misbehavior, a form of adultery—in the Oval Office, no less—and forcing the entire population of the planet to come to grips with hetero-sexual felatio as a family topic of discussion.

In a sense the issue boils down to this.  The Congress must be prepared to conduct the hearings and to rise above purely partisan concerns to a state of reason and judgment that will be appreciated by the members themselves and by the nation in general as at once circumspect, ethical, and authoritative.  A foundation for that state of mind must emerge from the rubble that has been made of civility, openness, and trust by the radical Republicans over the past dozen years, particularly the past six.  Then, on the other side, the population must be brought into a state of receptivity for such proceedings.  The impending impeachment of Nixon, for instance, was preceded by months and months of small steps in the press, small increments of suspicion of criminality, culminating after a long "preparation period" in the formal hearings.  The country was ready to listen to the probes of Sam Dash and the country wisdom of Sam Irvin.  The American society today is not prepared; rather, it is sharply divided along partisan lines and personal enmities stoked by a corrupt press.  There are some, like myself, who have been ready for years, but the majority are not receptive to the idea; the complete  foundation has not been properly laid.

There is a chasm that must be crossed.  On either side there is the need for foundations to be laid and for the juridical and ethical structures to be erected upon those foundations.  In November of 2006 it is a bridge too far to imagine.  But there is another factor that is in play that might well hasten the day.  It is George Bush himself.

Nancy Pelosi understands quite well how disasterous it would be for impeachment proceedings to be started in the present environment.  Yet, she also knows that George Bush is inherently an unstable figure in American politics, that as he is made to confront the horrors of his administration in Iraq, the Gulf Coast decimated by Katrina, the torture, unConstitutional wiretaps, the lying, the bellicose ignoring of global warming, George will (under the tutelage of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney) make mistakes that he can no longer hide with the Congress gone Democratic.  Nancy knows that the fastest way to build the social foundation for impeachment is for George to be George.  It is not blackmail; it is just holding the sword of Damocles where it ought to be held—over George's (and Dick's) necks.

It is important to understand the dynamics of this situation.  George is being guided less by Rove and Cheney than before.  Father Bush's friends are easing their ways back into the mess and they will be a counterforce against the rude and crude machinations that we have come to expect from Bush the younger, from Rove, from Cheney.  If the Bush senior people are successful, George will survive the next two years, a figurehead, much-chastened, glad to have his butt spared a thrashing in the Congress.   With Rove and Cheney diminished the general tenor of Republican politics could be less divisive (primarily in an effort to encumber the Democrats with the Iraq issue) and, therefore, ironically the path cleared for building the social foundations for impeachment in the general population. 

It could turn out that the Republicans, recognizing that divisiveness protects against impeachment, will be ornery as usual.  Certainly the rise of Trent Lott predicts trouble in the Senate.  It would not be unheard of for Republicans to take virtually any measure to see that impeachment does not come up, including getting nastier in the rightwing press, thereby assuring that the political will in the society generally is not there for impeachment.  But all of this assumes that George will behave.  Will he?  My guess is that he will not.  There will be clear cases of Bush behaviors that will have Nancy's hands moving under the table to get a firm grip on the impeachment issue before the end of 2006.  George is not really a bi-partisan sort of guy.  His tour in Texas was well off-Broadway and the circumstances bear virtually no relationship to Washington politics.  Nancy may or may not show her hand, but there should be no question in anyone's mind that the impeachment issue is portable and can be put loudly on the table at any sign of Bush being Bush/Rove/Cheney.  I believe, with others writing on the internet and the paper press, that if it comes down to impeachment hearings, Republicans will have Cheney's head (like Spiro Agnew's) and then George's before any vote.  It will mean another Republican loss in 2008, but a quicker recovery.  A crippled Republican Party for 2008 might hold enough to avoid a debacle, particularly if Hillary is the best the Democrats can muster.

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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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