In American politics, brave actions are politically unthinkable until someone thinks to act on them. Then public opinion can turn, sometimes with surprising speed.
For several months, I have been arguing with friends and colleagues that impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney should be a serious political option. Just two of their crimes and misdemeanors -- willfully lying America into war and firing federal prosecutors for purely political reasons, then further obstructing justice by stonewalling about the dynamics of the firings -- are more than adequate constitutionally to impeach. There are several other offenses, ranging from defying the lawful mandates of Congress and the courts, to gross invasions of civil liberty, to denying democracy itself by systematically undermining the right to vote. And, in the seventh year of this eerie administration, in which the president is a puppet of the vice president (rendering the usual mechanisms of accountability opaque), the curtain has only just begun to be pulled back on Cheney.
The conversation always goes the same way. Yes, say the prudent ones, to some extent the constitutional assaults are even worse than Richard Nixon's. But we have a cure for this administration -- the 2008 election. And an impeachment proceeding this late in Bush's second term would be seen as playing politics. The people don't want impeachment, they want Congress to do the public's business.
These are fair questions, to which I will return in a moment. But for now, consider the constitutional and political logic of an intermediate step, the impeachment of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Given the several counts against him, including his lying to Congress about domestic spying, lies that have now been contradicted by sworn FBI testimony, and his utter stonewalling about the firing of the U.S. attorneys, no reasonable observer could dismiss an impeachment proceeding as merely playing politics. There is no other way for justice to be done. The case for impeaching the attorney general was ripe months ago. I urged that course this past March in a Boston Globe column also published on the Prospect website. [See "You're Fired," March 2007]
Constitutionally, the framers designed impeachment precisely so that Congress would be the final check on out-of-control executive branch officials who broke laws. Politically, many prominent Republicans have already called for Gonzales to resign. An impeachment proceeding would force the issue, and put other Republicans in a double bind of either defending the indefensible or adding to the pressure for his resignation. Either way, the process weakens the Bush administration and strengthens its opposition.
Unlike in the matter of whether to impeach Bush, we have begun to see some congressional leadership on the Gonzales affair, most notably by Rep. Jay Inslee of Washington state, a former prosecutor. The other great benefit of impeaching Gonzales is that it would demonstrate that impeachment is not some screwball idea but a solemnly constitutional process intended for use when all else fails. And an impeachment proceeding against the attorney general would necessarily smoke out more of the role of the White House in the firings of prosecutors. Impeachment of Bush and Cheney would itself become more politically thinkable.
But what about those purely tactical arguments against impeachment of the president? Isn't it just too close to the election? Let's turn that contention around on those who make it. The man is going to be our chief executive for another 17 months. Bush has claimed that even if Congress votes to hold members of the executive branch in contempt, he would direct the Department of Justice not to prosecute them. He has claimed that his powers as commander in chief, a purely military constitutional function not intended to turn the president into a monarch, allow him to selectively interpret laws. What else would Bush have to do before it becomes legitimate to begin an impeachment proceeding? Declare a state of emergency and govern by decree? His actions are not so far off this description.
And what of the claim that the voters would prefer to see Congress go about the public business? Look at how Bush has hamstrung the current Congress and you'll see that little legislation of any consequence is likely to pass until 2009. There is no higher public business than holding members of the executive accountable for lawbreaking.
If the Democratic leadership in Congress works up the nerve to impeach Gonzales, the process would make it less unthinkable to imagine impeaching Bush -- and could well elicit more evidence of impeachable conduct. Even if Bush retained office, public attention would be focused on his misdeeds and those of Cheney. Republicans would be forced either to abandon Bush as they ultimately abandoned Nixon, or to defend odious actions. Either way, they would pay dearly in 2008. At worst, Bush would toss Gonzales overboard before the waters rise around his own neck.