Many loyal Republicans opposed impeaching George W. Bush. So did most liberal and progressive activist groups, labor unions, peace organizations, churches, media outlets, journalists, pundits, organizers, and bloggers, not to mention most Democratic members of Congress, most Democrats dreaming of someday being in Congress, and — toward the end of the Bush presidency — most supporters of candidate Barack Obama or candidate Hillary Clinton.
Remarkably in the face of this opposition, a large percentage and often a majority of Americans told pollsters that Bush should be impeached. It’s not clear, however, that everyone understood why impeachment was needed. Some might have supported a successful impeachment of Bush and then turned around and tolerated identical crimes and abuses by a Democrat, assuming a Democrat managed to engage in them. But this is the point: whoever followed Bush’s impeachment would have been far less likely to repeat and expand on his tyrannical policies. And the reason many of us wanted Bush impeached — as we said at the time — was to prevent that repetition and expansion, which we said was virtually inevitable if impeachment was not pursued.
Can You Hear Me Now?
“You just hate Republicans” was the most common argument against impeachment, but there were others. “It’s more important to elect someone different.” “Why do you want President Cheney?” “Why do you want President Pelosi?” “Why distract from good work?” “Why put the country through trauma?” “Why not focus on ending war?” “Why not do investigations?” “Why divide the Democrats?” “Why start a process that can’t succeed?” “Why destroy the Democratic Party the way impeaching Clinton destroyed the Republican Party?” We answered these questions as patiently as possible at great length and enormous repetition for years and years.
People pursued alternatives to impeachment, from spreading the word about how bad the crimes and abuses were, to pushing legislation to redundantly re-criminalize Bush’s criminal behavior, to promoting supposedly lesser-evil candidates, to promoting truly good candidates, to constructing ways to drop out of society and wash one’s hands of it. The trouble was that when you let a president spy without warrant, imprison without charge, torture, kill, lie, make war, operate in secret, rewrite laws, and persecute whistleblowers, you can predict — as we predicted for years — that the next president will adopt and build on the same policies. Nothing short of punishing the offender will deter the successor.
In fact, the new president, working with Congress and all of his other facilitators, has turned abuses into policies. The scandal and secretiveness have been replaced with executive orders and legislation. Crimes are now policy choices. Checking off lists of murder victims is official open policy. Secret laws are normal. Secretly rewritten laws are established practice. Spying in violation of the Fourth Amendment is openly defended and “legalized,” with sporadic bursts of public outrage and establishment excusing, following new detailed revelations. Whistleblowing is being transformed into treason.
This moment offers certain opportunities. It is well-placed in between the election seasons that so debilitate the nation. Also, bravery and integrity seem to be spreading like a contagion. Intimidation is backfiring. Resistance is growing, and so is whistleblowing. Bradley Manning and Thomas Drake and Matthew Hoh and Coleen Rowley and John Kiriakou and Jesselyn Radack and many others are inspiring new whistleblowers like Edward Snowden (support him here!), and like the member of the Joint Special Operations Command who spoke out for the first time at our forum on the opening of the film Dirty Wars in D.C. on Saturday.
However, what failure to impeach Bush has done to legitimize his crimes is nothing compared to what it has done to delegitimize impeachment. If a tyrannical president who liberals hated and who talked funny and who didn’t even pretend to be killing for some higher benevolent purpose can’t be impeached, then who can? Surely not an intelligent, articulate African American who pretends to agree with us and gives speeches denouncing his own policies?
But this is the same problem as before. Making speeches against Bush’s abuses was not enough. Clapping for speeches against Obama’s abuses — even speeches by Obama — is not enough. There is a reason why people abuse power. Power corrupts them. And absolute power corrupts them absolutely. Telling a handful of Congress members who are forbidden to speak about it, and most of whom don’t really give a damn, what sort of outrages you are up to is not a system of checks and balances or the rule of law.
Refusal to impeach pulls the foundation out from under representative government. Congress won’t impeach for violation of subpoenas, so it avoids issuing subpoenas, and it therefore can’t compel production of witnesses or documents, so it doesn’t take a position on an important matter, so the unofficial U.S. state media takes no position either, and people follow the media.
Would impeaching Obama invite rightwing delusional charges? Would it send confusing signals rather than clear ones, given Bush’s free pass? Not if Obama and Bush were impeached together. They’ve both committed many of the same high crimes. Impeachment can take place after leaving office. The time has come to restore seriousness to the serious tool the Constitution provides for checking presidential power. The time has come to impeach Bush and Obama.