Monday, January 30, 2006

Impeachment Discussions Begin - And Perhaps Republicans Are On Board?

Having recently posted on progressive conferences, and on my trip to Vegas for a union conference, I've been asked to give some detail about the specific conference that I attended. Most of it was plenaries and workshops on organizing, union finances, filing grievances, and other stuff I won't bother recounting, but two issues came up that might interest a wider audience.

One, the assembled delegates from the local units of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers voted to express the sense of the union that George Bush and Dick Cheney should be impeached. I can't say precisely on what grounds, because the full resolution was only read from the floor while I was out of the room. I can, though, tell you that although I support the impeachment of both men, I voted against the resolution.

The resolution, in the parts that I heard, sets forth several grounds for impeaching the BTK Vice President and his hand puppet Chimpy, one of which was that - and I'm paraphrasing - the Bush Administration has "waged war on the poor" with its economic policies. It also mentions torture and illegal wiretapping, I believe.

The Bushies and their allies in Congress have, indeed, attempted to hurt the poor with their economic policies. As they've given what adds up to a trillion dollars in tax breaks mostly for the wealthy, virtually the only government programs they've cut have been those directed at the least advantaged Americans: housing subsidies, food stamps, cash assistance - without any attempt at a serious argument that they're eliminating waste and fraud, or facilitating economic independence. This year they're planning to cut Medicaid even more than they did last year, and when they needed to spare either beet farmers or Medicaid recipients to get one last vote and pass a budget, they chose the beet farmers. Bush happily supported and signed all of this work. It's sickening.

What it's not, though, is an impeachable offense. There are some people who want to use impeachment as a radical tool, to think outside the box and shake up the current political dynamic, by stating forthrightly what lefties and progressives stand for. Unfortunately, that misses the point of impeachment. Radical impeachment is an oxymoron. Impeachment is, by definition and by design, a tool of the mainstream, intended to help protect the current democratic structure when there's a bipartisan consensus that it's endangered by the high crimes and misdemeanors of a federal official.

It simply doesn't make any sense to call for impeachment on grounds that you know you could never get 50% of the U.S. populace to agree upon. It particularly doesn't make sense to call for impeachment on the grounds that the President signed into law economic policies that were drafted and passed by the House and Senate, the very bodies that would then have to vote for impeachment and removal from office. The Constitution doesn't prescribe any economic theories or policies; the truly radical stance, if one wished to strike it, would be to demand amendment of the Constitution to include the Economic Bill of Rights which FDR recommended 62 years ago but which never became law. That would be, in true radical fashion, an effort to change existing systems rather than working through them. Impeachment, by contrast, exists for the defense of existing systems.

Obviously, impeachment's not going to happen anyway, but I think it does make sense to talk about it. Bush does deserve impeachment - certainly for the illegal wiretapping, arguably for torturing and hiding prisoners and violating the Geneva Conventions in other respects, for launching a war on dishonest grounds and lying about the cost and damaging the military and the nation's security with the incompetent aftermath, perhaps for aiding and abetting the Valerie Plame leakers, for deliberately sabotaging honest representative government (I'm thinking of the war on science, the deliberate misclassification of government records, the lying to Congress, etc.). These are all issues on which the executive branch has unilaterally abused the law and the public trust in a manner that even moderate members of the President's own party might, perhaps, under the right circumstances, possibly consider as grounds for his removal. These issues ought to be a matter of ongoing public discussion, and a focus of debate during the midterm elections, and if a miracle transpires they might become the focus of attention of a new Democratic House majority next year.

But I don't think it makes much sense to be calling for impeachment on grounds totally removed from reality. Such talk weakens any impetus towards impeachment, rather than strengthening it, by making its advocates look marginalized and out-of-touch. There's no possible argument that would get a single Republican vote, ever - much less two-thirds of the Senate - that a president should be removed for signing economic legislation that the President had openly advocated and that the Congress passed and sent to him. If impeachment talk is going to be even a shadow of a realistic threat, it must be focused like a laser on plausible impeachment grounds, regarding the threat of an out-of-control executive, not a grab-bag of progressive policy complaints.

Two, I was reminded at the conference of that small breed of principled libertarian Republicans who genuinely oppose the encroachment of big government, no matter who's at the wheel, and who might conceivably join an impeachment drive, were one to be articulated in a forceful, compelling way. In this case, it was Bob Barr. Yes, Bob Barr. You may remember him from such educational filmstrips as "Let's Impeach Bill Clinton!" and "The Defense of Marriage Act." Barr was in the vanguard of both of those loutish campaigns. He's been out of Congress for a while, though, long enough to demonstrate that his primary devotion is not to GOPihad but to limited government and social conservatism. Often, his views still depart wildly from basic norms of a decent society, but in other cases they intersect with progressives' concerns.

In Vegas, I discovered an example of his intellectual honesty: Barr had written a piece [not available online] for the December Legal Times, calling for lifting restrictions on federal grants to legal aid organizations. While in Congress, Barr himself supported prohibitions on legal aid offices that got federal funds from using any money at all, federal or otherwise, to do things that looked like political advocacy. He now feels that legal aid offices have become depoliticized, and that they deserve support for their work, which sometimes includes (and this clearly warmed his heart) fighting eminent domain seizures. Granted, a big part of his new stance is motivated by fear that religious organizations will face the same types of restrictions on federal faith-based dollars, but Barr still deserves some credit for directly reversing himself, acknowledging doing so, and praising the very program that Reagan, Gingrich, and others spent decades trying to shutter. Many ideologues who were worried aboutthese sorts of future limits on religious charities would have groped for a spurious distinction in order to maintain the limits on legal aid, thereby sticking with the party line, but Barr chose otherwise.

At the same time, Barr has been teaming up with the ACLU to oppose Bush's attacks on civil liberties - in fact, he's gone so far as to tell Time magazine readers that "Presidential Snooping Damages the Nation." [premium content only at Time site] Now, that's the sort of Republican who would take impeachment articles seriously - if they were presented in a serious manner.

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