The I Word in the Boston Globe

Here’s an article in Sunday’s Boston Globe about impeachment, followed by a letter submitted to the Globe’s editor.

The ‘I’ word
Why a growing grassroots movement on the left wants to impeach the president — and why Democrats in Washington don’t even want to talk about it.
By Drake Bennett | June 24, 2007

FOR ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN it was the discovery, in late 2005, that the Bush administration had been monitoring Americans’ phone and email conversations without warrants that convinced her that the President shouldn’t be allowed to serve out the remainder of his term.

As a young congresswoman from New York, Holtzman, who now practices law in New York City, had served on the House Judiciary Committee that in 1974 adopted articles of impeachment against President Nixon. Among the charges, she points out, was that Nixon had overseen an illegal electronic surveillance program.

“Having participated in that,” she says, “you don’t forget it.”

Today Holtzman is one of the leading voices in a small but energetic movement seeking to impeach not only President Bush but his vice president, Dick Cheney. In March, the Massachusetts Democratic Party joined 13 others, in states like California, Nevada, and New Hampshire, in passing a resolution in support of impeachment. The legislatures of nearly 80 towns and cities (most in Massachusetts, Vermont, and California) have passed similar resolutions, and state legislators in 11 states have introduced impeachment bills.

But given how controversial and deeply unpopular the administration has become, it is surprising how little mainstream political traction the movement has gained. Polls show the public does not think impeachment should be a priority. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly declared impeachment to be “off the table,” and even Congress’s most liberal members oppose the idea. It is a sign, say many, that the nation’s most vivid memories of impeachment are of the deeply divisive Clinton proceedings, not the Nixon drama that eventually allowed the country to heal.

“Somehow along the way in this country we have become really afraid of impeaching,” says Darcy Sweeney, a Massachusetts coordinator for Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) and one of the activists who brought the impeachment resolution before the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

The only impeachment resolution currently before Congress, introduced by Ohio Congressman and presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich this spring, is directed solely at Cheney, and when asked, Kucinich refuses to say whether he’d support impeaching Bush. “I’m pretty much staying focused on the effort to impeach the Vice President,” he says.

At a panel at last week’s Take Back America conference, an annual gathering of progressive activists and politicians, three of the Senate’s most liberal members — Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, and Amy Klobuchar — flatly declared themselves against impeachment. Even Rep. John Conyers, a fierce Bush critic who in 2005 filed a bill calling for possible impeachment proceedings, has backed away from the idea — despite the fact that his wife sponsored the Detroit city council’s own unanimously approved impeachment resolution.

Most Democratic politicians and strategists see impeachment as a loser. Right now, President Bush is one of the least popular presidents in American history, and Democratic leaders don’t see any point in turning him into a political martyr. Just as important, they argue, the time-consuming, rancorous debates that the process would occasion would elbow any other business off the legislative agenda, leaving the Democratic Party little to show for its return to power on Capitol Hill.

To impeachment’s champions, however, these tactical arguments are worth little. What’s at stake, they argue, is the Constitution itself. “I’d like to see [Bush and Cheney] tried and convicted and put behind bars,” says Washington’s David Swanson, co-founder of After Downing Street, an organization dedicated to doing just that. “That would be a satisfactory outcome. Not because I dislike them or think they’re unpleasant people, but I don’t want future presidents to think they can do these things.”

The case against Bush does echo certain elements of the case against Nixon. As articulated by organizations like PDA and After Downing Street — and as laid out in a spate of recent books by lawyers like Holtzman; John Bonifaz, a former Massachusetts Secretary of State candidate and After Downing Street co-founder; and Barbara Olshansky, who represents several Guantanamo detainees — Bush stands accused of overseeing illegal surveillance and of lying to Congress and withholding information.

In 1973, the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment charging Nixon with similar crimes — obstructing justice and spying on and harassing political opponents — for personal political gain. Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment.

“We felt that the Constitutional system had worked,” Holtzman recalls.

But the brief the would-be impeachers bring against Bush and Cheney is more sweeping than the 1973 case against Nixon. A list of impeachable offenses listed on After Downing Street’s website includes the President’s “allowing his administration to condone torture,” threatening the use of force against Iran, his use of presidential signing statements to revise laws passed by Congress, the dropping of cluster bombs in Iraq, and Bush’s failure to take reasonable steps to protect New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina.

Most mainstream legal scholars, including many who have been deeply critical of the Bush administration, would disagree that most of these alleged offenses fit the “high crimes and misdemeanors” requirement set out in the Constitution for impeachment. But on wiretapping in particular, some allow that there is an argument to be made.

“It’s an allegation of serious criminal misconduct arising out of the exercise of the power of the presidency,” says Mark Tushnet, a professor at Harvard Law School. “If it turns out that the President was authorizing illegal activity, it’s comparable to Nixon.”

For Democratic strategists, though, legal arguments are beside the point. Their case against pursuing impeachment is straightforwardly political. While every poll shows deep dissatisfaction with Bush and some show a conditional support for impeachment, even registered Democrats don’t tend to list impeachment among their top priorities.

Pursuing impeachment today, Democratic leaders argue, would galvanize a Republican Party that’s currently quite discouraged with Bush.

“In an ironic way it does George Bush a favor,” says Rep. Barney Frank, Democrat from Newton. “He is losing the national debate on most issues, he is losing support among Republicans, and impeachment would almost certainly allow him to rally lots of Republicans.”

It would also, they argue, put an end to any hope of passing significant legislation in the remaining year and a half of the current Congress. Congressional politics, says Ruy Teixeira, a political analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress, “is a zero-sum game: the resources and energy you put into trying to impeach Bush don’t go into other things.”

That legislative sclerosis, Frank argues, would only be worsened by the inevitable sharpening of partisan lines that impeachment would create. “The single most important thing for Congress to do is to get us out of Iraq,” says Frank. “And especially in the Senate, that can’t be done without Republican votes.”

For impeachment proponents like Carpenter and Swanson — who are optimistic that their cause will find broad support in the coming months — gridlock would be a small price to pay to restore the Constitution’s balance of powers. But they also dispute the zero-sum argument. Again, they look to Nixon.

“The overwhelming pressure of impeachment forced Nixon to back off, to not veto bills,” says Swanson. “It put Nixon on the defensive.”

According to Swanson, the impending threat of impeachment allowed the Democratic-controlled Congress to create the Endangered Species Act, to raise the minimum wage, and cut off funding for the Vietnam War.

“There’s a grain of truth to that,” concedes Stanley Kutler, a retired professor of law and history at the University of Wisconsin and the author of “The Wars of Watergate.” Nixon was weakened, Kutler says, by the prospect of impeachment. But what truly cost Nixon, Kutler points out, was not Democratic support for impeachment, overwhelming though it was, but Republican support for it. “I can flat-out tell you there’s not going to be any impeachment until and unless you have Republican votes,” Kutler says.

And the difficulties that the impeachment movement is having convincing Democrats to sign on suggests that it’s going to have even less luck with Republicans.

Ultimately, the decision is a political one. Even in Nixon’s case, Kutler points out, some Republicans stood by the president until the bitter end. Among them was a first-term Mississippi congressman on the judiciary committee named Trent Lott, who declared himself opposed to impeaching presidents. A quarter-century later, as Senate majority leader, he helped lead the drive to impeach Clinton.

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail drbennett@globe.com

_____________

To the editor:

letter@globe.com

I appreciate Drake Bennett having interviewed me for and quoted me in his
article on impeachment, but I am concerned that this may give your readers
the false impression that what he wrote accurately reflects the views of
impeachment advocates and honestly reports the facts.

I discussed with Bennett at some length the polling on impeachment. He
published only this sentence: “Polls show the public does not think
impeachment should be a priority.” I cannot find any polls to support that.
In fact, there have not been any mainstream scientific polls done on
impeachment in the past eight months, and no polling company has ever polled
the American public on beginning impeachment proceedings against Dick
Cheney. The few polls conducted up through eight months ago show majority
support or close to it for impeaching Bush. The polls are collected at
http://afterdowningstreet.org/polling As I discussed with Bennett, the most
interesting result of these polls is the failure of most media outlets,
including the Boston Globe, to poll on the question at all.

Later Bennett writes “While every poll shows deep dissatisfaction with Bush
and some show a conditional support for impeachment, even registered
Democrats don’t tend to list impeachment among their top priorities.” What
is that based on? What polling company has ever included impeachment in a
list of possible priorities? Can you name one? And why is our
dissatisfaction with Bush “deep” even though fewer of us, according to
actual polls, approve of Congress than approve of Bush?

Then Bennett writes “Congress’s most liberal members oppose the idea [of
impeachment].” Who would those be? Certainly they are not the two
co-chairs of the Progressive Caucus or the Chair of the Out of Iraq Caucus
or the Deputy Whip or any of the others who have signed onto H Res 333,
articles of impeachment against Cheney.

Bennett provides the argument from unnamed Democratic leaders that
impeachment would turn Bush into a martyr and that impeachment would take
time away from other business. Yet, as I told Bennett and he declined to
print, there is no evidence that impeachment could improve Bush’s standing
with the public or that this Congress has the ability to accomplish anything
other than impeachment. The one thing this Congress has managed to do in
six months is fund more war (and slightly correct the falling miminum wage).
Pelosi has publicly taken ending the war funding “off the table” just as
explicitly as she has impeachment. Six months is longer than any past
impeachment proceeding has required. If impeachment is so unpopular, why
won’t Bennett’s sources, if they exist, allow him to use their names?

Bennett does later name Rep. Barney Frank, but does not quote Rep. Jan
Schakowsky who is actually part of the Democratic leadership in the House
and is cosponsoring H Res 333.

Why won’t even “mainstream legal scholars” allow themselves to be named,
when Bennett asserts that they would not consider various offenses to be
impeachable? Has Bennett read the American Bar Association’s report on
Bush’s signing statements? Has Bennett spoken with the Dean of the
University of Massachusetts School of Law? Has he run into Colin Powell’s
ex Chief of Staff lately? I’m just throwing out names, something Bennett
seems averse to. Are there three people who have made the argument in print
that he cites? I’d be very surprised.

The one person Bennett names, a Harvard professor, says of the warrentless
spying, “If it turns out that the President was authorizing illegal
activity, it’s comparable to Nixon.” If it turns out? Is Bennett aware
that Bush has confessed to authorizing programs that a federal court has
already ruled felonious? “If it turns out” is a phrase used to maintain a
pretense that we don’t know things yet, that we need “investigations” first,
even though Bush’s White House is refusing to comply with numerous subpoenas
that would move investigations forward. That too is “comparable to Nixon.”
Article 3 passed against him by the House Judiciary Committee was for
refusal to comply with subpoenas. I told Bennett this.

Bennett has a hard time even naming impeachment supporters. At one point,
he writes “For impeachment proponents like Carpenter and Swanson.” But at
no point does he give Carpenter a first name or any identification.

Bennett is at his worst, though, I think when he is simply pontificating on
his own, as in this sentence: “And the difficulties that the impeachment
movement is having convincing Democrats to sign on suggests that it’s going
to have even less luck with Republicans.”

That’s either a truism or a baseless assertion.

Please take more care with your reporting. Please start by actually polling
the public on whether Congress should begin impeachment proceedings against
Cheney, and the same for Bush. Please report what you find.

Sincerely,
David Swanson
Charlottesville, VA

_____________

> Dear David,
>
> Thank you for your considered note. First of all, apologies to Tim
> Carpenter for losing his first name. After I turned in the piece, my
> editors cut a quote of his that came earlier in the piece and the full ID
> wasn’t transferred to the remaining quote.
>
> You are right that there hasn’t been very much polling on American
> attitudes about impeachment. Contrary to your claim, however, there have
> been polls on how impeachment ranks among Americans’ priorities: most
> recently a nationwide LA Times/Bloomberg poll in January that found that 1%
> of those polled (and 2% of self-described liberals) thought impeachment
> should be among Congress’s two top priorities.
>
> Secondly, my evidence for the point that presidential impeachment remains
> unpopular among Democrats in Congress is the fact that only eight out of
> the 233 Democrats in the House have signed on to Rep Kucinich’s Cheney
> impeachment bill, while neither Kucinich nor Conyers will talk about
> impeaching Bush, and not a single senator has expressed any interest in
> impeachment.
>
> As for the arguments of legal scholars, in their writings and public
> statements, even liberal legal scholars like Jack Balkin, Sanford Levinson,
> Laurence Tribe and Mark Tushnet restrict their arguments about impeachment
> to a couple issues: warrantless wiretapping and the possibility that the
> President sanctioned torture. The point I make there is that almost none
> of them agree with the entire list of complaints you bring against Bush and
> Cheney. That is certainly an accurate portrayal of the positions of the
> people and organizations you suggest I contact. And I’m unsure why it
> surprises and bothers you so much that Tushnet, a legal scholar, would
> speak in the conditional of an alleged crime for which someone has not yet
> been tried.
>
> And near the end of the piece I do in fact include your response to the
> argument that Congress would be less effective if it occupied itself with
> impeachment proceedings.
>
> Again, thank you for your note, and I’m sorry you found the piece so
> upsetting.
>
> Best,
> Drake Bennett

________________

Drake,

As I wrote to you, I am concerned that people might get faulty information from your article. I’m sorry you interpret such concern as “being upset.” Did it upset you?

I have not seen the poll you chose to rely on, ignoring all the other ones, but I doubt very much that it listed impeachment as an option. The top two priorities is hardly an exhaustive list of priorities – as suggested by your article, and goals for a new Congress in January are hardly relevant to an alleged “news” story six months later.

You have not addressed the question of why the Globe doesn’t simply conduct a poll. That may not be your decision to make, but you are qualified to have an opinion on that failure.

You have not addressed the lack of evidence for the Bush-martyr fantasy or for the claim that the Democrats are busy getting something else done.

I’m glad that you’ve now, albeit out of print, added torture to the short list of acceptable impeachable offenses – which previously had contained only illegal spying. But just because someone has only written about the spying and the torture is not an indication that they would back up your argument that the other crimes are not impeachable offenses. And the reason it is a problem to write about the spying in the conditional is not that Bush or Cheney has already been impeached, but that your article suggested that we don’t know whether they are guilty. A public confession on TV, topped off by a federal court ruling of guilt, leads me to find this disingenuous. What possible explanation could you have for omiting such facts? Sure, an editor could have done it, but I have yet to see your resignation from the Globe.

David