(Note: This is a cross-post from a piece I did today for TPMCafe.com, in response to Josh Marshall's suggestion that Bush's defiance of Congress on the U.S. Attorney Firing Scandal may make impeachment talk a lot more serious, even for people like him who've never liked the idea. I guess this is High Controversy Day at TDS, based on this item and the earlier staff post encouraging Court-packing).
Citing the Clinton precedent, M.J. Rosenberg writes:
"[I]mpeachment is no longer the political nuclear bomb it once was, especially if one knows in advance that conviction and removal from office is unlikely to occur. Accordingly, impeachment proceedings are essentially the best means of getting information to the public which is otherwise unavailable."
I'm glad M.J. is beginning with the premise that actual impeachment and removal of Bush ain't happening, at least based on the current dynamics. I do not share his optimism about impeachment proceedings serving as a "lever" to bring Bush to heel, given everything we know about the man. Nor do I really understand Josh's suggestion that initiating a pre-doomed impeachment effort will somehow serve as a legal precedent reducing the impact of Bush's scofflaw behavior.
So the fundamental question remains whether Democrats want to take up the "I-word" as a political exercise. And other questions quickly follow.
From the Clinton experience, we know that public opinion turned decisively against the impeachment effort once it became obvious the Senate wasn't going to convict him (which wasn't entirely obvious at the beginning of the saga), for the simple reason that the whole thing looked like a waste of time. So what will happen to the current, surprisingly strong public support for impeachment if the extreme unlikelihood of a successful outcome is conceded from the get-go?
A second question, which everyone understands, is what to do about Dick Cheney. A dual or sequential impeachment effort is entirely without precedent, and every single problem with a late-term impeachment would get vastly more complicated.
A third question is the scope of impeachment articles. Josh seems to assume that Bush's defiance of Congress and his quasi-imperial notions of executive privilege are the trigger. But many Democrats would be outraged if the administration's behavior before and after the invasion of Iraq were not included; others might well argue that the abandonment of New Orleans was an impeachable offense. With a presidency this bad, where do you draw the line?
And a fourth question is how to impose party discipline during an impeachment fight. Like it or not, it's a certainty that a sizable number of Democrats in both Houses of Congress will be reluctant to "go there," some simply because of the Clinton experience.
[More after the jump}.
And that brings me to the issue that most troubles me about this debate: its effect on Democratic unity going into 2008. Anyone familiar with netroots discussion of this issue knows there are already significant numbers of Democrats who are disposed to think of this as a basic test of courage and principle. Do we really want this to be the dominant issue in the Democratic presidential nominating contest, which it would instantly become? Remembering the premise is that impeachment would be a completely political exercise, are we ready for the possibility that Democratic credibility would be "impeached?"
All these questions are based on current political conditions, which could change. If, for example, the administration launched an unauthorized preemptive military strike on Iran, then impeachment would truly be unavoidable, and a Senate conviction could conceivably succeed.
M.J.'s right that impeachment cannot truly be "taken off the table," and shouldn't be. But that's not the issue; it's whether Democrats should encourage their congressional leaders to begin taking practical steps towards impeachment, in the limited window of time available for it. If the real crisis is over Bush's executive-privilege claims, other options are available, such as contempt of Congress citations designed to produce a court test. Some have also raised the possibility of defunding the offices of the president and vice president.
But the questions about the "I-word" need to be honestly addressed, without the presumption that anything less is craven, before Democrats move in that fateful direction.