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October 20, 2005
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

There is a school of thought that argues that the Democratic Party is at present unable to present a unified, viable alternative to the Republicans, that its strategy consists in merely waiting (hoping) for the current Administration to implode as a consequence of its incompetence and/or malicious, willful wrongdoing on almost every front. This viewpoint holds that the Democratic Party is deeply divided and therefore unable to present a coherent strategy to the voters.

Notwithstanding the merits (or lack thereof) of this take, it appears to me that there is one issue on which almost all Democrats should be able to agree: Bush should be impeached. Given the current state of affairs and the far-from-rosy prospects, my question, Auntie Pinko, is: what on earth are Democratic members of Congress waiting for?

Carlos
Vizcaya, Spain


Dear Carlos,

Auntie is most sympathetic to our neighbors around the world who are impatiently waiting for the American people to "do something about that mess!" (As a South African friend of mine put it.) Americans who are profoundly uncomfortable with our nation's current role as the world's Bad Neighbor - and I believe we are now a majority - want nothing more than to do just that.

But it is a complicated process and one that cannot be implemented overnight. Our Constitution was written by men who were deeply aware of the perils of investing too much power in any one individual or group. They were also concerned to prevent "the tyranny of the majority" from denying rights, due process of law, and the guarantees of freedom to those who dissented or differed from the majority. They knew that the majority is not always right, and that popular opinion is easy to sway and manipulate.

The government established by our Constitution reflects these concerns. We are not a "pure" democracy where every issue affecting the citizenry is determined by a majority vote of the entire citizenry - rather, we elect representatives we hope are trustworthy and delegate to them the power of our votes in deciding those issues. We also "delegate up" to these representatives the responsibility of choosing certain unelected leaders, based on the rules established by the Constitution and our laws. And when there are conflicts among the various branches of government, or when an individual invested with Constitutional powers is called into serious question, the Constitution defines processes to determine the outcome.

In the case of impeachment, let's clear up one common misapprehension immediately: "impeachment" as defined by our Constitution is not the same as "removal from office." Impeachment is merely the first step of a two-part process that may or may not culminate in an official's forcible removal from office. In the history of the United States, no President has ever been removed from office as a result of the impeachment process. Mr. Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment; Mr. Johnson and Mr. Clinton were both impeached, but neither was removed from office.

In other words, impeachment is not a magic bullet that will get rid of Mr. Bush and start the cleanup process.

To initiate an impeachment, first the House of Representatives must vote to formulate, and approve, articles of impeachment spelling out the specific "high crimes and misdemeanors" of which they believe the President guilty. The House of Representatives is decisively controlled by the Republican Party, and such articles could never be formulated and approved until a sufficient number of Republican representatives indicated their willingness to break ranks and form a majority bloc for impeachment.

Until that occurs, the efforts of Democratic representatives to impeach Mr. Bush will be ineffective. Democratic leadership in the House must weigh the costs of appearing ineffective, being accused of partisan political assassination attempts, and losing any leverage they might currently have on thousands of low-profile but important Congressional actions, against the benefits of projecting leadership and making a public stand from which there cannot be any retreat.

Democratic leaders in the House are unlikely to come down on the "taking a stand" side of the equation until they are certain of an overwhelmingly high level of support across the electorate. It will take more than a few polls to give them such assurances.

Even if they were convinced of such support, and managed to convince a majority of their colleagues (including many Republicans) to join them in presenting articles of impeachment, the House of Representatives would then have to engage in a lengthy examination process, controlled by the Republican leadership, before finally voting upon and adopting those articles.

If they managed to get past that hurdle, the articles of impeachment would then have to be presented to the Senate (also controlled by the Republican Party) to try. The Senate would have to conduct a full formal trial, and convict with a 2/3 vote, in order to find Mr. Bush guilty of the "high crimes and misdemeanors."

Upon that finding, Mr. Bush would be automatically removed from office and Mr. Cheney would become President. (Assuming he had not already been impeached, as well.) The Senate could then, if they chose, bar Mr. Bush from holding any other public office.

While many people all over the world would doubtless heave a huge sigh of relief were this to occur, I am not at all hopeful of such an outcome. Nor am I in the least convinced that the substitution of Mr. Cheney or any other Constitutional officer from the current Administration or Republican leadership of the House and Senate would represent a positive change.

America is already deeply torn by highly emotionalized partisan conflict, and this rift has had great negative effects at all levels of our social fabric. It has impeded the ability of communities to work together to address critical issues, hobbled state and local governments from making unpopular but necessary decisions, and deprived us of a generation of leaders who might otherwise be willing to take risks and use their imaginations. A lengthy and viciously rancorous impeachment process, even if it culminated in Democratic control of the institutions of our government, would only render the nation that much more ungovernable.

The alternative, which is to allow the nation to experience and examine the effects of a government crippled by partisanship, greed, incompetence and cronyism over the next three years, carries its own risks. We might be tempted to adopt measures that would not serve us well in the long term as "band-aids" to placate the public. Leaving Mr. Bush and his Administration in control, even in a very weakened state, allows them to do further damage at home and abroad- damage that will be very difficult for their successors to mend.

I wish I could see an unambiguously "good" outcome to this. Unfortunately, such outcomes rarely exist in politics. We will have to muddle through. If we are lucky, Americans will finally be so disgusted with the distortion and corruption of our political process that we will be ready to consider making real changes: reining in the influence of money on our elections and our elected officials, restoring public confidence in the voting process, and re-building the balance of power and the system of checks and balances between our branches of government. It will take visionary and determined leadership to accomplish this, even if the public will is present. Auntie prays every day that such leadership emerges among my neighbors and friends here in America. Encouragement and good wishes from our friends abroad would be welcome, too, Carlos, and thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!


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