Feb. 12, 2007 – With the Democratic Party in control of Congress, a growing number of voices are asking lawmakers to hold the increasingly unpopular Bush administration accountable for spying on Americans, torture at GuantÃ¡namo, negligent hurricane relief and misleading the public into war.
Impeachment activists, however, will have an uphill battle. The Democratic leadership seems set on keeping the idea "off the table," forcing progressives to look for ways to bypass Congress and push the idea of accountability into the public debate.
Activists are organizing an impeachment conference this month in New York City with rallies to follow in March and April in various locations. They are also calling for people to work with their communities lobbying their congressional representatives to call for impeachment or begin investigations into the presidentâ€™s conduct.
"It has nothing to do with George W. Bush or whether we like him or not," said David Swanson, co-founder of After Downing Street, a group working to expose lies leading to the Iraq war and hold officials accountable. Swanson said he is pursuing impeachment to "set standards for future presidents."
"If we were to go to 2008 without having impeached anyone," Swanson continued, "we would be establishing the standard that it is permissible to lie us into a war, spy on us, to detain people without charge, to throw away habeas corpus... to openly use torture." Habeas corpus is the right to challenge oneâ€™s detention.
"They donâ€™t want to take any chance of dismantling a system which at least sometimes puts them in power."
Almost 30 towns, from Carrboro, North Carolina to Santa Cruz, California, have passed resolutions calling for impeachment, according to ImpeachPAC, another pro-impeachment organization. And resolutions have been introduced in many state legislatures, including New York and Texas.
The Backbone Campaign, which is affiliated with the Progressive Democrats of America, uses political theatrics to spread their message. Last month, members of the group delivered a giant model of a spine to Capitol Hill, demanding Congress force a withdrawal from Iraq and pursue the impeachment of President Bush.
Other groups working on Impeachment include World Canâ€™t Wait and Impeach for Change.
In a widely circulated column in the Progressive magazine, radical historian Howard Zinn said that "the time is right... for a national campaign calling for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney."
Zinn told The NewStandard that despite the odds against convincing members of Congress to move on impeachment, raising awareness is paramount, especially since lawmakers wonâ€™t make the move without wide public support. He said local hearings are needed to create a "groundswell of support" that could lead to Congress taking action.
For instance, he said many Vermont residents are putting impeachment on the agenda of their annual March town meetings. According to the Vermont Impeachment Movement, at least 22 towns had added resolutions calling for impeachment to their meeting agendas as of February 2.
"It has nothing to do with George W. Bush or whether we like him or not. It is to set standards for future presidents."
Zinn called for the formation of "alternative bodies" that conduct their own investigations in the absence of a congressional probe into the presidency. "Itâ€™s easy because you donâ€™t need any official commission, just citizens in a community that get together and call a public meeting and they inviteâ€¦ historians, journalists, people who have knowledge of what is going on. They can invite veterans, the families of veteransâ€¦ people who have been apprehended, people who have been incarcerated at GuantÃ¡namo," he said. "There are many people who in one or another are victims of what the Bush administration has done."
But despite the impeachment buzz, the Democratic leadership has so far foreclosed the possibility that lawmakers will take the lead.
"Democrats are not about getting even; Democrats are about getting the American people ahead," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) at a press conference last November. "I will say, as I have said before, that impeachment is off the table."
Some legislators, such as freshman Minnesota representative Keith Ellison, campaigned partly on the promise to impeach, but have not pursued it since. "My opinions really have not changed over time, but the circumstances that I'm in have," Ellison told the Minneapolis Star Tribune last month.
Hoping to spur members of Congress and the public into action, several lawyers and journalists have laid out the case against Bush and other administration officials in books and articles. For instance, Elizabeth Holtzman, an attorney and former congresswoman who served on the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment hearings, co-wrote The Impeachment of George W. Bush with journalist Cynthia L. Cooper. Former prosecutor Elizabeth De La Vega wrote United States v. George W. Bush et al, which presents evidence of crimes committed by Bush administration officials to a hypothetical grand jury. And the investigative journalist Dave Lindorff wrote The Case for Impeachment with Barbara Olshansky from the Center for Constitutional Rights.
But in an article published in The Nation magazine, University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson said that while such actions were signs of the presidentâ€™s "gross incompetence," they are not the "high crimes and misdemeanors" that allow impeachment. He added that the Democratic leadersâ€™ outright rejection of pursuing impeachment weakens the case further.
Levinson argued that the impeachment movement is counterproductive and that its advocates "are in effect supporting a strategy doomed not only to fail but also to be perceived by most of the country as a dangerous distraction from the pressing problems facing the country."
"If there is anything the country needs less at this point than a self-defeating political strategy," he wrote, "it is the further domination of public debate by lawyers trading jargon-ridden charges and countercharges about the criminal liability of the president."
Michael Seidman, a professor at the Georgetown Law Center who specializes in Constitutional and criminal law, said debating the legal merits of impeachment is secondary to considering its political feasibility. He told TNS that in establishing "bribery, treason and high crimes and misdemeanors" as the grounds for impeachment, the writers of the Constitution intentionally kept the definitions vague.
"I donâ€™t think itâ€™s a legal question," said Seidman. "The terms high crimes and misdemeanors are very vague. Thereâ€™s been a lot of effort to figure out what they mean."
He said impeachment is "meant to be a political process, not a legal process. If the framers wanted it to be a legal process they would have given it to a court, and they deliberately didnâ€™t do that."
The political rather than legal nature of the process, however, leaves the decision for impeachment in the hands of a party that historian Zinn says is "a very weak opposition party."
Zinn compared the lack of action on exploring the Bush administrationâ€™s alleged legal violations to the handling of Nixonâ€™s impeachment. Rather than questioning the legality of Nixonâ€™s secret bombing of Cambodia, Democrats focused on Nixonâ€™s agents breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters.
"They and the Republican party share a desire to get rid of rotten apples in the barrel but keep the barrel," he said, echoing a phrase he said was used around the time Nixon was impeached. "Keeping the barrel meant not challenging the most fundamental policies about the war and the allocation of national resources."
"It has to do with rocking the boat on which they too are passengers," Zinn added. "They donâ€™t want to take any chance of dismantling a system which at least sometimes puts them in power."