Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Practical Matter

Josh Marshall at TPM has been reluctant to raise the impeachment issue, and I must say that I have also been cool to the idea for practical and political reasons. But now Josh seems to be reconsidering the question.

As regular readers of this site know, I’ve always been against the movement to impeach President Bush. I take this position not because he hasn’t done plenty to merit it. My reasons are practical. Minor reasons are that it’s late in the president’s term and that I think impeachment itself is toxic to our political system — though it can be less toxic than the high officials thrown from office. My key reason, though, is that Congress at present can’t even get to the relatively low threshold of votes required to force the president’s hand on Iraq. So to use an analogy which for whatever reason springs readily to my mind at this point in my life, coming out for impeachment under present circumstances is like being so frustrated that you can’t crawl that you come out for walking. In various ways it seems to elevate psychic satisfactions above progress on changing a series of policies that are doing daily and almost vast damage to our country. Find me seventeen Republican senators who are going to convict President Bush in a senate trial.

On balance, this is still my position. But in recent days, for the first time I think, I’ve seen new facts that make me wonder whether the calculus has changed. Or to put it another way, to question whether my position is still justifiable in the face of what’s happening in front of our eyes.


Without going into all the specifics, I think we are now moving into a situation where the White House, on various fronts, is openly ignoring the constitution, acting as though not just the law but the constitution itself, which is the fundamental law from which all the statutes gain their force and legitimacy, doesn’t apply to them.

If that is allowed to continue, the defiance will congeal into precedent. And the whole structure of our system of government will be permanently changed.

Whether because of prudence and pragmatism or mere intellectual inertia, I still have the same opinion on the big question: impeachment. But I think we’re moving on to dangerous ground right now, more so than some of us realize. And I’m less sure now under these circumstances that operating by rules of ‘normal politics’ is justifiable or acquits us of our duty to our country.

It is definitely worth thinking about.

When Richard Nixon was facing impeachment over Watergate, his supporters — namely conservative Republicans — said that if we went down that road, future presidents would face impeachment for frivolous and trivial reasons. They were right; less than thirty years later we did impeach a president for what turned out to be frivolous and trivial reasons, and the charge was led by conservative Republicans who seemed determined to prove their point. (And they’ve taken most of the wind out of their own sails of saying that Mr. Clinton deserved impeachment for lying and obstructing justice when they said that Scooter Libby didn’t commit a crime worth prosecuting. More sauce for your gander, sir?) What I keep coming back to is the mercurial standards Mr. Bush’s defenders have for the rule of law. Simply put, the rules do not seem to apply to them, only to everybody else.

But that is just a tactic meant to obscure the larger issue: how far can our system be pushed before it breaks? The constitutional crisis we faced in 1974 seems almost quaint — to use a term favored by Mr. Gonzales — and the Nixon administration, for all its faults, knew when the jig was up. The attempts by Richard Nixon to attack his political enemies were ham-handed and delegated to a bunch of gonzo 007-wannabes and political hacks out of a bad made-for-TV remake of Seven Days in May. This time around, we have a very crafty and skilled operators who have made no secret of their goals and set about to accomplish their permanent one-party rule with breathtaking audacity. Karl Rove has never been coy about what his plans are, and when January 2009 comes along and he vacates the White House, he’ll find some other way…assuming he hasn’t engineered some way of repealing the 22nd Amendment.

The problem is that Mr. Rove chose the wrong horse to bet on. Had he backed a more skilled speaker or a smoother messenger — and one less easy to parody as a complete goof — than George W. Bush, he might have succeeded. And had be done a better job of vetting the enforcer than Dick Cheney, someone who is endowed with a natural charm more along the lines of Ronald Reagan instead of Severus Snape, he might have been able to get the message out to the point that the invasion of Iraq and the complete capitulation of the Democratic party was a fait accompli. But as we say in theatre, it’s all in the casting, and it’s the leads who will have to take the fall. That’s show biz.

And then there is the practical matter of getting our country back.