There has been a loud cry from the Vermont “netroots” for the impeachment of George W. Bush. I completely sympathize. Bush has led this country into one of the worst military blunders of our history. He has done damage to a century of goodwill built-up by his predecessors: from Wilson to Clinton. His administration has continued to add to the Federal deficit; ultimately, this will place programs the American people need, cherish, and depend upon, programs such as Social Security, in grave danger. His reliance on creating a climate of fear has brought our ancient civil liberties into question. Finally, his policies have led to great loss of life. American Solders and Iraqi Civilians have paid the ultimate price in a dubious cause of questionable worth.
George W. Bush’s administration has been both a failure and a disaster for this country.
Impeachment, however, would be a mistake, and would play right into the hands of Karl Rove and company.
Crazy F*#!king Hippies
Recently, on Green Mountain Daily, an entry appeared entitled “Crazy F*#!king Hippies”.
A cartoon shows a Donkey and an Elephant watching a crowd of protesters.
The protesters bring up the fact that the war is based on a lie; there are no weapons of mass destruction. The Donkey Cheers them on. The Elephant growls: Crazy F*#!king Hippies.
The protesters note that the government is spying on us. The Donkey Cheers them on. The Elephant growls: Crazy F*#!king Hippies.
The protesters scream that Katrina relief was a disaster. The Donkey Cheers them on. The Elephant growls: Crazy F*#!king Hippies.
The protesters cry: Impeachment. The Donkey and the Elephant looked shocked.
And then the Donkey growls: Crazy F*#!king Hippies.
These people are incensed. And they want action. They want to see George W. Bush placed on a pillory of disgrace and made to feel some small token of shame for what he has done to this country.
I agree, I sympathize, and I think impeachment would be a HUGE MISTAKE.
My gut feeling is, in fact, that a serious move to impeach Bush would play right into the hands of both this president, and those who are trying to find a worthy successor for him: one who will continue Bush’s agenda.
The Impeachment Process: What’s the Charge?
Before going into my argument, it is probably worth reviewing the Impeachment process.
The House of Representatives functions somewhat like a grand jury. It decides if there is enough evidence that the President (or other public official) should be brought to trial, or impeached. The trial then moves to the United States Senate The Senate hears the case, and decides if the official deserves to be removed from office.
That is the extent of the Senate’s power: removal from office. However, after the convicted official is removed, he is then liable to a criminal prosecution resulting from his actions.
The charges that can lead to Impeachment are very, very specific: Article Two, Section 4 of the Constitution states: The President, Vice-President, and all civil officers of the United States shall be removed from office on impeachment for and conviction of [emphasis mine] treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.
The question then becomes: what could President Bush be charged with, that he would also be convicted of?
Given the damage that President Bush has done, both to this country’s traditions of liberty and to its strategic and diplomatic position in the world, it certainly sounds as if we could charge him with treason.
But no…the Constitution is quite specific about the definition of Treason. In Article 3, Section 3, treason is defined very narrowly: Treason against the United States shall consist onlyin levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.
. Note the “only”.
In the eighteenth century, memories of Tudor England’s Star Chamber were not far distant; and, of course, the examples of aristocratic Europe were plain to see. The founders did not intend for “treason” to be a catch-all crime, used to “disappear” anyone who dissented from the government of the day.
Given the fact that Rovists have endeavored to tar anyone from the center to the left who dare disagree with their polices with the stigma of treason, and given their obvious lack of respect for civil liberties, I cannot say that I think the founders were wrong to keep the lid so firmly on the crime of treason.
This would be appropriate, to be sure. Many of us believe that there would be no sweeter vision of justice than to see George W. Bush convicted of inviting his Halliburton and Big Oil cohorts to the public table to gouge themselves on taxpayer money braised with the blood of our solders.
But we have no real evidence of this, nothing hard and fast, nothing that would hold up in a court of law.
In Congress, Henry Waxman is holding hearings in the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Among other questions, Congressman Waxman is asking: What happened to the 363 TONS (yes, TONS
) of money we shipped to Iraq? The committee is also looking into the administration’s slipshod dealings with our government contractors, and evaluating the Administration’s request for more money.
Vermont’s own Peter Welch is a member of that committee
, and it should be interesting to see if they come up with material that results in criminal charges.
But there is no firm evidence yet; at least, not firm enough to convict the President of the United States. Personally, I doubt there will be. There is no need for Bush to personally get his hands dirty. To help his friends, all he need do is turn a blind eye toward them. It is very hard to prove intentional malfeasance over shear stupidity and blindness.
High Crimes and Misdemeanors
And here we come to the most famous phrase in the impeachment language: High Crimes and Misdemeanors.
When you can’t convict for Treason, or for Bribery, there is always this catch-all.
But if you look into our history, you will find that, although the House has, in moments of passion, adhered to Congressman Gerald Ford’s assertion
that: "An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history", the Senate has not followed suit.
In fact, given that a two-thirds majority is needed to obtain a conviction by the Senate, it is, and always has been, highly unlikely that the Senate will respond to the passion of the moment.
Because the Right-Wing seems so much better at using passion to remove opponents from power (think: Schwarzenegger in California) I, for one, am very glad that our founders thought to balance passion against sober judgment. In my opinion, both forces are vital to the successful running of any community. Especially one as large and varied as the United States of America.
The American People: Deeply Conservative
But I realize that many others of Liberal persuasion would disagree with me. They would prefer that the voice of the people be heard loud and clear- and that there be no disconnected elite in a position to growl such phrases as: Stupid F*#!king Hippies.
It’s a good argument (and also one not to delve too deeply into here: this essay has already grown too long). But my short answer it this: The American people are, by nature, conservative. In each new addition of his masterful, radical work, A People’s History of the United States
, Howard Zinn includes a final chapter entitled: “The Coming Revolt of the Guards.” It was there when the book was issued to me as a college text back in 1987. Last time I looked, twenty years later, the book has been extensively updated, but the chapter is still there. Zinn’s chapter is a “not a prediction, but a hope”…and yet it has not come to pass.
I believe that this lack of dynamic, radical change is due to the basic conservatism of the American people. Change does come- witness civil rights, child labor, environmental protection, enfranchisement…but it comes for the most part slowly: three steps forward, one step back.
The arguments of the right are short term arguments. They, much more than liberal arguments, appeal to the passions most deeply held by the American people. Because of our conservatism, if we allow ourselves to be subjected to fast revolution, it will be a Revolution to the Right, not the left.
The arguments of the center-left take time to resonate. The American people often do not want to admit the truth of them. They long for
the Bush/Reagan “dead or alive” cowboy approach.
That is why the center-left coalition lost in 2002, and again in 2004.
But Americans are not completely stupid, and they are realizing now that this approach does not work. At least, not in the case of Iraq.
Our arguments ARE resonating now. And the truth of them is being admitted. This is a slow process; it has to be, given the nature of an American public which is highly resistant to it.
This process MUST be given time to continue…we must NOT give the Right wing a rallying point which they can use to obfuscate the process and cloud the question of Bush’s responsibility.
Two Thirds? No Way
Let’s look at an important point once more: It requires a two-thirds majority to convict and remove the President.
Unlike the Watergate case, there is no smoking gun. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that, in a Senate all but split down the middle, there would EVER be the two-thirds majority needed to convict Bush on any but the most blatant charge.
But perhaps it is not necessary to convict Bush. Perhaps it is only necessary to make him appear before the bar of history, and thus stain his reputation. Perhaps there is a tactical advantage to this?
It’s a legitimate argument, but I believe that a look into the history books will show that it would backfire on the center-left.
When Impeachment Fails: Johnson
We have impeached two presidents in our national history. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.
The most famous Presidential Criminal of all, and the only President to be forced to resign his office, was Richard M. Nixon. It is worth noting that Nixon was not
impeached by the U.S. House of representatives.
As everyone remembers, Nixon resigned in disgrace before
the House could impeach him. While some sources reported that he was momentarily tempted to fight, it quickly became apparent that, not only did the House of Representatives have the “Smoking Gun” tape
, which recorded Nixon personally authorizing hush money, but that there would be a strong possibility that the Senate would find the two-thirds majority needed to convict.
But what happened to the two Presidents who were actually impeached by the House of U.S. Representatives?
In the story of Andrew Jackson, it is hard to find a clear cut hero.
Johnson succeeded Lincoln upon his assassination. A Tennessee Democrat, he broke with his party on the question of Southern Session. The former Democrat was nominated by the Republicans to serve as Lincoln’s VP to show the nation and the world the Party of Lincoln was the party of all loyal men. [Freidel, Frank. Our Country’s Presidents. National Geographic Society. Washington DC. 1981.] But, he was never fully trusted by them.
Certainly, it is hard to love Johnson. As Howard Zinn points out, Johnson, seeking to bind the nation’s wounds, often ended by siding with former slave owners and racists. “Johnson Vetoed bills to help Negros,” writes Zinn, “he made it easy for Confederate states to come back into the Union without guaranteeing equal rights to blacks.”
However, the Republican Congress of the time is not very lovable either. Following the war, and the assassination, the passions of the country ran very high. According to Nevins and Commager in their Short History of the United States
[Random House. New York. 1945] this situation was quickly exploited by a Republican Party who wished to “perpetuate it’s power and by the wish of selfish business groups to use the situation to their own advantage. Manufactures who wanted high tariffs, bondholders who wanted to be certain of interest payments…railroad builders who wanted land grants all rallied behind the Republican Regime.”
These Radical Republicans, annoyed at the Democrat, Johnson, for standing in their way, passed some highly questionable laws about who he could, and could not, appoint to his cabinet. Johnson defied these laws. And he was impeached by the House.
The Senate voted NOT to convict Johnson by one vote. It is possible that some Republican Senators were more concerned at the judgment of history than they were at the judgment of their party.
Johnson’s term was soon over. However, he WAS later elected to the United States Senate. From Wikipedia: [In the Senate] Johnson denounced the corruptions of the Grant Administration and his passions aroused a standing ovation from many of his fellow senators who had once voted to remove him from the presidency.
So, with Johnson, we see that a failed Impeachment has enabled historians to make an argument that he was a bullwork against those same forces of corporatism that Bush’s foes are fighting today. And
we see that it helps gain for this mediocre President a STANDING OVATION in the Senate.
Now, I urge all in the center-left who are crying for Bush to be impeached to project that same picture 150 years into the future. Is this really
the curtain call you want for George W. Bush? A STANDING OVATION in the Senate? Personally, I find that an increadibly distasteful picture.
When Impeachment Fails: Clinton
Fortunately, it is not necessary to spend a lot of time recreating this moment in history. It is still fresh. What is worth noting, however is that the party of Clinton gained seats during the 1998 midterm elections, that Clinton’s approval rating has continued to RISE
following his impeachment trial, and that his wife is considered a very serious contender for the Presidency. Bill Clinton has hardly been confined to obsurity by his opponenents.
Republicans, unable to beat Clinton in open political warfare, chose to fight using the weapon of impeachment. They were beaten then, and they continue to be beaten. With the exception of the die-hard Clinton haters, most people seem to reguard this impeachment trial as pointless partisan warfare. Many remember Clinton was a certain degree of respect.
Again, is this the fate we would wish for George W. Bush?
Don’t Hand Them a Weapon
For eight years (if you include the 2000 campaign) George W. Bush and his cronies have been unsavory, slippery, dishonest, nasty, unscrupulous opponents of the Center-Left coalition.
They have done great damage to this country in every area. They have wreaked havoc on our diplomacy, our military, our financial stability, our programs of social justice, our environment, and on our civil liberties- upon which all else depends.
For most of that time, they have frustrated all of our efforts to stop them. Not until 2006 was there even so much as a glimmer of hope.
Now, we are tempted to go for broke, our luck is changing, and many of us are ready to bet all of our chips on impeachment.
It would be a bad bet on our part.
Presently, the right wing is fractured and floundering. Conservatives cannot find a clear cut leader
and they are reeling from last fall’s reversal of fortune.
The American people, despite their basic conservative instincts, seem to be coming around to a more sensible view of the world. We see this in Bush’s plummeting levels of support, and, of course, in last fall’s midterm elections.
The facts, in other words, are speaking for themselves to our fellow citizens.
But, if we throw Impeachment into the mix, not only will we give conservatives a point around which they can rally; but by bringing a charge without being able to obtain a conviction, we will actually leave the question of Bush’s guilt wide open.
Because it is likely that Bush would not lose his trail in the Senate, the American people will have an excuse to stop their journey toward common sense.
That is why I agree with the political leaders of Vermont: Bernie Sanders, Patrick Leahy, and Gaye Symington
that Impeachment is not the right decision and that we would be handing our opponents a weapon.
Instead, let us continue to support and follow the efforts of Congressman Waxman to expose the fraud perpetrated by this administration, let us continue support the prosecution of second tier officials like Scooter Libby. Let us continue to show the American people what “Support the Troops” means to a Republican Administration that runs Walter Reed.
Let us keep exposing the Bush Administration for the Disaster it truly is.
we do, in the course of this exposure, find a smoking gun…by all means let’s go for impeachment. I’d love to see George W. Bush be forced from office and stand open to criminal prosecution.
But, until that moment arrives, let us NOT allow Bush to beat us one last time. Until we really have the smoking gun, let’s don’t pretend that we do.