You’d hardly know it from the NY Times et. al., but support for impeachment – of Cheney, first; then Bush – is on the rise. [For information, see www.impeachforpeace.org and www.democrats.com.] The main obstacle in the way of initiating the process in Congress has been the Democratic Party leadership. For the most part, the buck has stopped at the desk of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She deserves all the opprobrium lavished upon her. Last week however, thanks to Cindy Sheehan (who will challenge Pelosi for reelection in California!) and other notables, attention was paid, finally, to John Conyers’ role too. There was even a sit-in at his office, leading to many arrests.
Conyers is a liberal or progressive icon, and he is revered by many African Americans. But that isn’t the only reason his Pelosiism rankles. Nowadays, no one expects much from a Democrat. The Democratic Party never fails to live up to what ought to be its true name, the Party of Pusillanimity (POP), just as the Progressive Caucus never fails to make a mockery of its own. By now too, it seems that a membership requirement for the Black Caucus is a promise to go along to get along. Conyers may be better than most but, in the end, he’s no exception to the rule. Recall that he led the charge for the not-yet-reborn Al Gore in 2000; turning against Ralph Nader, but also, more importantly, against Nader’s effort to break the disabling party duopoly under which the United States suffers grievously. Recall that despite holding what might be the most secure seat in Congress and despite having many Arab constituents, he has been as meek as any Clintonite in promoting a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. [Why his own constituents don’t occupy his office too is a question that should weigh on their minds. The Israel lobby brings down the wrath of Yahweh on anyone who strays from the Israeli government’s line; meanwhile Arab-Americans, lately the most racially profiled group in the Home of the Brave, seem to want nothing so much as inclusion in National Brotherhood Week.] Once the agenda is set, Conyers can be counted on to vote the right way. The same holds even for Pelosi, who voted against funding Bush’s occupation and war, even as she acquiesced to a vote that made funding inevitable. “Rock the boat, but not so much as to upset its course” might be her metaphorically challenged motto; “don’t go too far out on a limb” might be his. What especially rankles, then, is not just that Conyers is following Pelosi’s line – putting impeachment “off the table.” It’s that he was the one who led the call for impeachment back when the Republicans still controlled the Congress; in other words, when it really was off the table. Now that impeachment has become feasible, he has deserted the cause.
There has always been a tension between what Max Weber called “an ethic of responsibility” and “an ethic of ultimate ends”; in other words, between doing what is politically necessitated and doing what would be right in an ideal world. [Weber elaborated on these ethics, and on their relation to one another, in “Politics as a Vocation,” available in H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology.] The tension takes on a deep moral register when an ethic of responsibility is taken up for principled reasons, and when it also conflicts sharply with the requirements of an ethic of ultimate ends. This was the tragedy of the Communist movement. For Communists, the point was to advance History towards a realm of genuine Freedom by any means necessary. In retrospect, their dedication to an end became unhinged by their indifference to means; the consequences were devastating but also, undeniably, ennobling. [For a fuller analysis, see Steven Lukes, Marxism and Morality.] Movements animated by less worthy ends – by nationalistic aspirations, for example, or for reasons of “faith” --evidence similar tensions. One can only decry crimes committed for the sake of the Nation or by deluded agents of an omnipotent deity’s will. But there is still something ennobling in the way that even the most deluded suppress self-interest for a higher cause. In comparison, how debased are those who would allow another seventeen months of Cheney and Bush induced murder and mayhem for no reason other than to remain “players”! On “Democracy Now,” Cindy Sheehan said that Conyers had told her in a previous encounter that it was more important to elect a Democrat in 2008 than to stop the war. Leave aside the fact that his strategic judgment, the judgment of the Democratic Party leadership, is flawed; that in the present conjuncture at last, the Democrats have little to lose and much to gain by doing the right thing. The morally relevant fact is that acquiescence in the commission of historical crimes, not for some higher principle (defensible or not), but in order to win an election – most likely by electing a Clintonite (*), perhaps even a Clinton -- is debased. Nancy Pelosi is not the only one deserving opprobrium. All the Bush aiders and abettors in the Democratic Party do – all the more so those who, as chairmen of relevant committees, could do the most good.
There are some now who argue that impeachment is, in effect, a constitutionally prescribed civics lesson. [See, for example, John Nichols, The Genius of Impeachment: the Founders’ Cure for Royalism (2006).] This is a silly position, partly because it reflects a way of thinking that, true to Protestant traditions, sees the Constitution as a great sacred text, a Bible (of governance), that, like the Bible of the godly, contains all the answers for those who have the wits to interpret it correctly. [I elaborate on the shortcomings of this conception, even in its sophisticated versions, in The American Ideology (2004), chapter 6.] In fact, impeachment is a clumsy way for a people to rid themselves of leaders when they – and lately the world – “can’t wait” for the next election. In parliamentary system without fixed electoral cycles, votes of “no confidence” do the job better. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s about how undemocratic our institutional arrangements are; and therefore about the shortcomings, not the ingeniousness or the prescience, of the Founding Fathers. [Sorry Nichols, but there wasn’t a woman among them; it is a good civics lesson too not to obscure that fact by calling them “Founders.”)
Impeachment is a flawed mechanism – in part because the only penalty it provides is removal from office. It is also flawed because, according to the usual understandings, the Constitutional grounds for it, “high crimes and misdemeanors,” designate only abuses of Constitutional powers and treason -- not war crimes, crimes against humanity or crimes against the peace. Richard Nixon was indicted only for his abuses of executive powers, though he was plainly indictable for far graver offenses as well. In a more just world, he would have been held accountable for both. In this respect, Cheney and Bush are like Nixon. To hold them accountable only for abuses of power is comparable to convicting Al Capone only for tax evasion; indeed, it’s even worse because Capone did actual prison time. Thus impeachment is hardly the uplifting civics lesson of Nichols’ imagination, and neither is it an ingenious contrivance of omniscient “founders.” Even so, Sheehan and the others who were arrested last week in Conyers’ office were right to do what they did. For all its flaws, impeachment is a way of rendering miscreants harmless.
Dan Gerstein, the Democratic “strategist” – and former aid to Joe Lieberman! -- who debated Sheehan on “Democracy Now” was prepared to concede, in good Pelosiite fashion, that Cheney and Bush very likely are historical criminals, but he claimed that they could never be found guilty of the requisite “high crimes and misdemeanors.” This is an odd view given how low the bar now is, after some very determined and not at all pusillanimous Republicans found Bill Clinton impeachable for lying about “having sex with that woman.” It is even odder for what it says about how Democratic strategists understand the system (unless, of course, like Bill Clinton, they just say what they think will work best). The committee Conyers chairs, the House Judiciary Committee, is the legally competent body to determine Cheney’s and Bush’s impeachability. Its official role is to investigate and, should the situation warrant it, to develop a case for impeachment. Its true role, in what is ultimately a flawed alternative to a no-confidence vote, is to make a strong enough case to move the process along to the next phase, a vote of the entire House. This would not be hard. It may be impossible to make a case for high crimes and misdemeanors out of thin air, though the Republicans came close in “the Lewinsky matter.” But Cheney and Bush have given the House Judiciary Committee more than enough to work with. But for one small and easily dispatched difference, their task is no harder than was the task of an earlier incarnation of the Judiciary Committee, when it drew up articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. The difference is that Dick Cheney seems to have learned from Watergate that, if a President (or Vice President) is determined to abuse his constitutional powers, he should first obtain legal opinions that say he’s acting properly, regardless of what any sane person would conclude. Cheney and Bush therefore have what Nixon did not – Federalist Society lawyers propounding bizarre theories of executive powers and prerogatives. Even allowing for the way these issues are argued, as questions of biblical – I mean Constitutional – interpretation, the case for a “unitary executive” is a non-starter. It is hard to imagine even Bush appointed judges concluding otherwise, though one should never underestimate their jurisprudential ignorance or their eagerness to please the Republican Right. Nixon abused his executive powers; so too have Cheney and Bush. Cheney’s and Bush’s violations may be even more egregious. The difference is only that Cheney bothered to get somebody to say the President -- and therefore Cheney, the acting President -- has the right. Surely, under Conyers’ leadership, the House Judiciary Committee can deal with that!
The Democratic strategist on “Democracy Now” also maintained that Cheney and Bush would never be convicted in the Senate because Republican Senators would stand behind them. It must be a great relief for the POP to have strategists who can foresee the future, though one must wonder, if they’re so smart, how come the GOP so often wins. What Gerstein’s remark really shows is that Democrats not only lack backbones; they also lack a sense of history. If they had one, they’d realize that there is a dynamic to the impeachment process; and they’d take to heart the fact that support for Nixon’s removal from office in the Senate grew as the House Judiciary Committee’s investigation unfolded. The more weakened Nixon became politically, the more the prospect for his conviction grew. [In the end of course, Nixon resigned before he could be convicted, and the Democratic leadership in Congress, maintaining that the case was moot, let the matter drop. Nichols criticizes them for that. He reasons that, in not following through to the end, they deprived the country of a curative and enlightening experience. What the Democratic leadership of those days actually did was to let a crook go free.] Their incompetence and intransigence, and Bush’s arrogant buffoonery, could and very likely will continue to diminish Cheney’s and Bush’s “political capital” in any case. But how much more effectively this would transpire with impeachment proceedings underway! Whether citizens would learn anything they don’t already know– anything uplifting and salutary, that is – the Democratic Party leadership surely would. They would learn how to put their power to good use.
Cheney and Bush are wounded tigers -- unfortunately not the paper kind. Though weakened, they still have the means to do harm. They could strike out – against Iran, most likely – at any time. It would be well therefore for Conyers and the others to recall the lesson of Richard III – that if you would strike a king, you must kill him. In this case, since the leaders of the POP are too cowardly to do more than poke, the king’s injuries are mainly self-inflicted; but his perception is the same as if the Democrats were doing their job, and he is therefore every bit as dangerous. It would also be well for them to recall Macbeth -- that “if it were done, then t’were well done quickly.” Thanks to our Constitution, Cheney and Bush cannot be quickly or summarily dispatched. But their days in office can be cut short. The world could pay dearly if the opportunity is missed. However, thanks to Pelosi and Conyers and the rest, time is not on the world’s side.