While incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said that impeachment would be "a waste of time," opinion polls find a majority of Americans supporting impeachment of President Bush for not telling the truth about his reasons for invading Iraq in 2003.
The problem is that Pelosi and many other Democrats are viewing the issue through the prism of the Republicans' partisan misuse of impeachment against Bill Clinton. Pelosi thinks filing articles of impeachment against George W. Bush would viewed in the same way.
John Nichols thinks that's a mistake.
Nichols, associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wis., and Washington correspondent for The Nation, has just written a book entitled "The Genius of Impeachment: The Founder's Cure for Royalism."
I had a chance to talk with Nichols about impeachment during a visit to Brattleboro this week to promote his book. Nichols' book is a history of impeachment and how the founders of our country designed the process to be used if necessary to preserve our constitutional government. He seeks to remind us that, more often than not, our country has been hurt by the failure not use the impeachment process when necessary.
Most people don't know that articles of impeachment have been filed against nine presidents, and that Republicans or Whigs have been the chief sponsors in seven of those cases.
For example, Republicans tried to impeach Harry Truman when, during the Korean War, he ordered the federal seizure of steel mills to prevent their shutdown by strikers in 1952. The impeachment effort was shelved after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Truman's seizure was unconstitutional, but the attempt still helped out the Republicans in that fall's elections.
Conversely, the Democrats failed to pursue impeachment of Ronald Reagan in 1987, after the full extent of the illegal acts committed as part of the Iran-Contra affair became known. Democrats in Congress thought that holding off on impeaching Reagan would help the party in the 1988 presidential election. Instead, George H.W. Bush won in a landslide, even though as Reagan's vice president, he had a small role in Iran-Contra.
Nichols writes that in the nine instances that impeachment has been proposed by the opposition party, that party has either maintained or improved its position in Congress in the next general election. In seven instances, the party that proposed impeachment won the presidency in the next election.
Nichols thinks the Democrats should get over their fear of the impeachment process, since most Americans know there is a big difference between impeaching a president over lying about an affair between consenting adults and impeaching a president for lying about the reasons to invade another country.
My corner of Vermont, Windham County, certainly recognized that difference. After town meeting voters in Newfane and other towns debated resolutions calling for President Bush's impeachment on Town Meeting Day this year, similar grassroots efforts were sparked grassroots elsewhere around the country.
"Before (Newfane Selectboard member) Dan DeWalt's efforts, the impeachment discussion was much more casual," Nichols said. "What happened in Newfane demonstrated that impeachment efforts could come from below. Southern Vermont captured the spirit of what Jefferson and Madison intended. They would've have wanted to see it start at a town meeting."
Nichols said Thomas Jefferson and James Madison feared what Jefferson called "elected despotism," which was to be avoided by what Jefferson called a government "which should not only be founded on free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among general bodies of magistracy as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others."
That's why Jefferson and Madison devised the impeachment process, and set a deliberatively broad standard to prove a president is guilty of "high crimes and misdemeanors." It was meant to be a check on unlimited executive power, to be used as a way to ensure accountability by the executive branch.
What happened on Town Meeting Day this year, Nichols said, was an example of "citizens reasserting their roles in the democratic process. In a time where there's such a disconnect between the people and the politicians, it was a very remarkable thing."
Because of what happened in Windham County, impeachment is now part of the national political discussion. Congressman Bernard Sanders, who initially kept his distance from the town meeting impeachment resolution, eventually signed on after getting an earful from his constituents.
"The process worked exactly as Jefferson and Madison intended," said Nichols.
There will be 40 more towns in Vermont that will try to put impeachment resolutions on the warrant for their 2007 town meetings. The critical mass is growing around the country for Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to be held accountable for their actions, which certainly meet Jefferson's standard of an elected despotism running amok.
The Democrats will pay a high political price if they fail to uphold their constitutional duties and make the Bush administration take responsibility for the disaster in Iraq they created with their lies.