In early April a silver-haired lady held up a placard at an Iraq war protest that has since been replicated on bumper stickers across America and blogs all over cyberspace. ‘Will Someone Please Give George W. Bush a B*** Job,’ the sign read, ‘So We Can Impeach Him?’ For partisan Democrats — at least those still smarting over the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton for lying about his office sex life — the sign’s appeal lay in its combination of low humour and righteous embitterment. But the embitterment predominates over the humour. Should Democrats win back the House of Representatives next fall, as appears more and more likely, the humour will fall away, and Bush will be impeached — whether he gets what Clinton got or not.
Until recently, the move to impeach Bush was confined to the Democratic party’s cranky fringe. The city council of Santa Cruz, California, the country’s marijuana Mecca, has urged the President’s impeachment since his first term. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has recommended an impeachment inquiry, as have Democratic parties in Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina and Wisconsin. So have the retired Manhattanites who style themselves the Vermont State Legislature, and the village of Nederland, Colorado, a member in good standing of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns. Neil Young has released a song called ‘Impeach the President’. Being able to express one’s views on such matters is ‘what this country’s all about’, says Mr Young, a Canadian. Ramsey Clark, a veteran of both Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet and Saddam Hussein’s legal defence team, has his own impeachment website.
Ordinarily, you need a crime to remove a president from office. But the question of what one should impeach Bush for has not preoccupied his opponents unduly. Most often the charges levelled involve Iraq and the war on terror. Bush lied to get the country into war, say his detractors. He countenances torture. His plan for warrantless wiretaps of al-Qa’eda has compromised the privacy of countless ordinary Americans who receive calls in Arabic via portable satellite phone from tribal areas of the Hindu Kush.
But since last winter the movement to be rid of Bush by extra-democratic means has won converts among intellectuals — including former Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham and the Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe — and in the Democratic party’s mainstream. Al Gore now seldom gives a speech in which he does not allude to the wiretaps. At a Christmas party in Finn McCool’s, a bar near the US Senate, John Kerry told several veterans of his 2004 campaign, ‘If we win back the House, I think we have a pretty solid case to bring articles of impeachment against this President.’
The growing likelihood of a Democratic win in the House is bringing the party leaders on board. Democrats need 15 seats to seize control and it is quite easy to see how they could get them. Voters tell pollsters by an unprecedented 13-point margin that they’d rather see Democrats running things. Republican districts in a dozen states are looking wobbly, and Democrat strategists are planning tough tactics — including demonstrations at military bases — to capture them. Some politicians have started counting their chickens. The Michigan leftist John Conyers, who would chair the House Judiciary Committee under a Democratic majority, introduced an impeachment resolution last winter. Shortly thereafter, the Wisconsin senator Russell Feingold urged that Bush be censured in the upper chamber for ‘one of the greatest attempts to dismantle our system of government that we have seen in the history of our country’.
Fellow Democrats have politely urged both Feingold and Conyers to shut up. Understandably. The American public can’t stand impeachment. When Republicans tried to destroy the career of Bill Clinton in the late 1990s, they turned the country against themselves, toppling their own leadership, including the House Speaker, Newt Gingrich.
So Feingold’s and Conyers’s irascibility or principle or whatchacallit presents their party with a problem. Now, as then, activist hardliners determine policy in both parties. Once riled, they will settle for nothing less than total war. This leaves party leaders in a delicate position. Whenever Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ leader in the House, speaks publicly, she gets browbeaten about how the President can be allowed to serve when his sole source of legitimacy is a mandate from the voters. Three months ago Pelosi told a meeting of her San Francisco constituents, ‘I think that we should solve this issue electorally.’ They booed her. Since then she has refined her stock answer into a nudge-nudge, wink-wink double entendre. ‘I think that things are going well for Democrats right now,’ she said recently. ‘In terms of impeachment, why doesn’t everybody channel their energy into winning the election and understand that elections have ramifications?’
The line between criminality and unpopularity is blurring in American politics. The blame for that is widely shared. On the one hand, the placard-waving lady with the silver hair is not exactly wrong about the Clinton business. Republicans are reaping the whirlwind for having abused the impeachment process and for trying to bamboozle the American people with a blizzard of non-sequiturs. (‘If Bill Clinton would lie to his wife about fondling an intern, how can you expect him to honour his word to veto the rider to the supplemental appropriations bill?’)
But the rot goes back further than that. Those ignorant and disgraceful right-wing troglodytes — the ones who warned, in 1974, that the ouster of Richard Nixon would send the country down a dangerous constitutional path — turn out to have been quite right. Democrats discovered that their legislative power could be wielded as a remedy to executive misconduct. They did not learn the difference between misconduct and disagreement. They sought to impeach Ronald Reagan twice — once (ridiculously) for his decision to invade Grenada, once (dangerously) for the so-called Iran Contra scandal. Over the past 30 years, impeachment has become an unwritten amendment to the American constitution. The last twice-elected president on whom an impeachment attempt was not made was Dwight Eisenhower.
Bush is in no more ultimate danger of being out of work than Clinton was. Impeachment is a charge brought by the House; removing a president requires two thirds of the Senate to convict him of those charges. But another impeachment would wreak further damage on American political stability. At the heart of the American constitutional balance is the idea that its president is obliged to the people, not to the legislature. When you have a people rendered inattentive by TV, shopping and other distractions of prosperity, it should not be surprising that legislators seize some of the people’s prerogatives. They strain towards the rights of parliaments to topple leaders.
And a Democratic majority, should one result from next November’s elections, will indeed impeach Bush. It won’t be because his deeds, or misdeeds, merit it. ‘Criminal stupidity’, after all, is a figure of speech, not a high crime.