Beginning last November and ever since, I have repeated a standard conversation with many Congress Members and staffers. It starts out with me urging them to impeach Bush and Cheney. They then stress all their other priorities that this would supposedly distract from, including often children's health insurance (SCHIP). I then tell them that any decent bill on any issue will be vetoed. They then get a very clever strategerizing look in their eyes and say something like "I know, but then we're not a do-nothing Congress. Bush is a do-nothing president."
Hmmm. Maybe. But wait a minute. If you know from the start that what you're doing will not get a single child better health care, then your effort to pass a bill and have it vetoed may not amount to doing nothing, but does it really amount to doing something? Of course we all want children to have health care. Of course there was real emotion in a lot of your pro-children's health care rhetoric. But if we all knew from the start, as I for one have been screaming at the top of my lungs for almost a year, that the thing was going to be vetoed, then what exactly was the point?
The point appears to have been theater. But was the theater aimed at improving the chances of actually giving kids health care in some future year, or was the theater a way to turn the workings of Congress into nothing other than a two-year-long advertising campaign for Democrats in the next elections? It's hard to tell without looking at some other examples
The big one is the occupation of Iraq. In this case, the stated goal of ending the occupation could be accomplished by blocking bills. Pelosi and Reid could refuse to bring bills to fund the occupation up for votes. Senators could put holds on bills, as Dodd did yesterday to a bill attacking our Fourth Amendment. (If his effort succeeds, I think we should consider him effectively a founding father of this nation.) And 41 senators could filibuster any war funding bill. Instead, both houses have pushed for anti-war bills and seen them fail to pass in one or both houses or be vetoed. They have then passed bills that met Bush's approval. In this case, the goal is clearly not to end the war, but to appear to be trying to end it. Here the theater is pure electoral campaign.
The other key example is impeachment. This is the one thing Congress could do that cannot be vetoed. This is the step that empowered Congress to end the Vietnam War and put Nixon on the defensive. As with SCHIP, impeachment is not guaranteed to succeed. But at least it's not guaranteed to fail. Even a failed effort to impeach Bush and Cheney for what the Democrats in Congress openly admit are quintessentially impeachable offenses would establish some level of accountability and increase the chances that these criminals will be indicted and convicted, and that the next president will neither pardon them nor repeat their crimes. Even a failed impeachment would be useful theater. But, according to the calculations of the Pelosi gang, it would be bad politics. Therefore impeachment is off the table. In this case, as in that of the war, the decision appears to be based in electoral strategy.
That electoral strategy is probably misguided. Letting Reagan go led to defeats, not victories, for Democrats. Targeting Nixon provided the biggest victories in many years. When the Republicans tried to impeach Truman, they won big. Even the unpopular Clinton impeachment left the Republicans with the White House and both houses of Congress. Whether the Pelosi-Hoyer-Emanuel strategy of keeping the war and Bush and Cheney around works for them or not, one thing is clear. Everything else they are doing is aimed at distracting from those two issues and advertising Democrats' virtues for the next elections.
Don't get me wrong. It is indeed a virtue to want to provide children with health care. It is indeed repulsive to oppose such a thing. But to pretend to try to make it happen is less clearly virtuous. To really try to make it happen would involve trying to impeach Bush and Cheney and remove them from office. If they were removed, many admirable bills might be passed and signed into law. Or the pressure of impeachment might lead Bush to back off on some veto threats, just as Nixon did. And, in the end, there are no guarantees that really trying would succeed better than pretending to try. But really trying, standing up straight and making an effort, the way Senator Dodd has made an effort to end unconstitutional spying, would also be a winning electoral plan. Watch support for Dodd climb over the coming weeks if you don't believe me. Two years may not seem like much time to wait and hope that the leading recipient of cash from weapons makers, Hillary Clinton, will ride in and save you, but two years is a very long time in the life and death of an ill child.