When Nancy Pelosi announced last fall that impeachment was “off the table,” official Washington accepted that the primary avenue for holding lawless Presidents to account had been closed off by the new Speaker of the House. But the Republic’s citizenry has not been so inclined. And now, with the Administration’s troubles mounting, they’re preparing to tell Pelosi that America and the world cannot wait until January 20, 2009, to put an end to Bush’s reign of error. When Pelosi arrives at the California Democratic Convention in San Diego on April 28–the same day that activists nationwide will rally for presidential accountability–she’ll find on the agenda a resolution that declares that the actions of President Bush and Vice President Cheney “warrant impeachment and trial, and removal from office.” Delegates are expected to endorse the measure.
Pelosi fears that impeachment would distract from the Democratic legislative agenda and provoke an electoral backlash. History suggests she is wrong: The Watergate Congress was highly efficient, and Democrats had one of their best years ever at the polls after pressuring Richard Nixon out of office. But aside from Dennis Kucinich, who is particularly fired up about Cheney’s misdeeds, few in Congress have even hinted at bucking Pelosi’s ban.
Outside Washington, however, an “impeachment from below” movement is gathering steam. The President’s troop surge into Iraq and his refusal to consider exit strategies has caused many to react like GOP Senator Chuck Hagel, who has observed, “The President says…he’s not accountable anymore, which isn’t totally true. You can impeach him.” Hagel’s remarks go to the heart of the surge in interest in impeachment: It stems from Bush’s ongoing disregard for the demands of the electorate, the Congress and the Constitution. Legitimate impeachment initiatives are organic responses to the realities of a moment rather than purely legal procedures. Talk of impeachment gains traction when it becomes clear that an Administration is unwilling to respect the system of checks and balances or the rule of law. This explains why the allegation that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, apparently with White House approval, pressured US Attorneys to politicize prosecutions has added so much fuel to the fire, with activists like Vermont’s Dan DeWalt now saying, “I don’t have any trouble getting people to agree that impeachment is necessary.”
DeWalt engineered a campaign in March to get town meetings in his state to pass resolutions calling on Congress to impeach and remove Bush and Cheney. Three dozen towns did so, including Middlebury, where GOP Governor Jim Douglas found himself presiding over a meeting that voted overwhelmingly in favor of going after the two for misleading the nation about the threat posed by Iraq, condoning torture and approving illegal electronic surveillance. The goal of the town meeting movement was to get the state legislature to forward articles of impeachment to the US House. Citing Thomas Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice, which makes reference to the authority of state legislatures to propose impeachment, legislators in at least ten states, including Vermont, have now done so. But the real success of the initiative was to illustrate the popular appeal of impeachment–an effort helped along by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who devoted a week of strips to the town meeting votes–and to tell members of Congress like Vermont‘s Peter Welch that they might want to take their cues from constituents rather than Pelosi. Welch has responded by meeting with activists and asking them for more details of Bush’s high crimes and misdemeanors.
DC Democrats still put forth anti-impeachment arguments–particularly the old saw that going after Bush would just give the presidency to Cheney. Activists have countered with an “Impeach Cheney First!” campaign and a reminder that the Constitution in no way prohibits holding more than one official to account at the same time. They’ve also picked up an argument made by Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, who says it was the threat of impeachment that got Richard Nixon to bend to pressure from Congress to wind down the Vietnam War. “If you want to move Bush on Iraq,” says Ellsberg, “get serious about impeachment.” Millions of Americans are doing just that.