Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Impeachment Game mk. II

Occasional Nation contributor and key Nixon impeacher Elizabeth Holtzman weighs in on Bush's eligibility for involuntary removal from office in a recent online piece. Contrary to my recent musings on the subject, she observes that discussion of impeachment is on the rise in Congress and among "ordinary" people, of which I doubt many Nation readers consider themselves members. While the evidence she advances concerning the illegality of the president's warrantless-wiretapping program is indeed troubling, Holtzman's essay overlooks the main reason that impeachment is still extremely unlikely at this time: its standards are sufficiently high and vague that initiating the process is effectively left up to the discretion of the dominant party in Congress. The Wikipedia article on impeachment underscores this point:
For the executive branch, only those who have allegedly committed "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors" may be impeached. Although treason and bribery are obvious, the Constitution is silent on what constitutes a "high crime." Several commentators have suggested that Congress alone may decide for itself what constitutes an impeachable offense.
A casual look back at American history is all that's necessary to see that the passage of impeachment proceedings against a president is an exceedingly rare event. A slightly closer investigation reveals that all three Congresses that successfully passed articles of impeachment were controlled by the party opposing the president. Historical precedents aside, Holtzman fails to address the significant divisions in American public opinion regarding the propriety of warrantless wiretapping and, more generally, the president's conduct vis-a-vis the War on Terror and Iraq. The preponderance of the available evidence suggests that impeachment requires either 1) behavior universally recognized across party and ideological lines as criminal and unforgivable or, 2) given less transparently malicious evidence, an unfriendly Congress. Since neither of those conditions prevail today, I continue to denounce all impeachment-related activity as dangerously quixotic and dispossessive of more productive liberal pursuits.