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The 'I' word

Why a growing grassroots movement on the left wants to impeach the president -- and why Democrats in Washington don't even want to talk about it.

FOR ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN it was the discovery, in late 2005, that the Bush administration had been monitoring Americans' phone and email conversations without warrants that convinced her that the President shouldn't be allowed to serve out the remainder of his term.

As a young congresswoman from New York, Holtzman, who now practices law in New York City, had served on the House Judiciary Committee that in 1974 adopted articles of impeachment against President Nixon. Among the charges, she points out, was that Nixon had overseen an illegal electronic surveillance program.

"Having participated in that," she says, "you don't forget it."

Today Holtzman is one of the leading voices in a small but energetic movement seeking to impeach not only President Bush but his vice president, Dick Cheney. In March, the Massachusetts Democratic Party joined 13 others, in states like California, Nevada, and New Hampshire, in passing a resolution in support of impeachment. The legislatures of nearly 80 towns and cities (most in Massachusetts, Vermont, and California) have passed similar resolutions, and state legislators in 11 states have introduced impeachment bills.

But given how controversial and deeply unpopular the administration has become, it is surprising how little mainstream political traction the movement has gained. Polls show the public does not think impeachment should be a priority. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly declared impeachment to be "off the table," and even Congress's most liberal members oppose the idea. It is a sign, say many, that the nation's most vivid memories of impeachment are of the deeply divisive Clinton proceedings, not the Nixon drama that eventually allowed the country to heal.

"Somehow along the way in this country we have become really afraid of impeaching," says Darcy Sweeney, a Massachusetts coordinator for Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) and one of the activists who brought the impeachment resolution before the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

The only impeachment resolution currently before Congress, introduced by Ohio Congressman and presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich this spring, is directed solely at Cheney, and when asked, Kucinich refuses to say whether he'd support impeaching Bush. "I'm pretty much staying focused on the effort to impeach the Vice President," he says.

At a panel at last week's Take Back America conference, an annual gathering of progressive activists and politicians, three of the Senate's most liberal members -- Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, and Amy Klobuchar -- flatly declared themselves against impeachment. Even Rep. John Conyers, a fierce Bush critic who in 2005 filed a bill calling for possible impeachment proceedings, has backed away from the idea -- despite the fact that his wife sponsored the Detroit city council's own unanimously approved impeachment resolution.

Most Democratic politicians and strategists see impeachment as a loser. Right now, President Bush is one of the least popular presidents in American history, and Democratic leaders don't see any point in turning him into a political martyr. Just as important, they argue, the time-consuming, rancorous debates that the process would occasion would elbow any other business off the legislative agenda, leaving the Democratic Party little to show for its return to power on Capitol Hill.

To impeachment's champions, however, these tactical arguments are worth little. What's at stake, they argue, is the Constitution itself. "I'd like to see [Bush and Cheney] tried and convicted and put behind bars," says Washington's David Swanson, co-founder of After Downing Street, an organization dedicated to doing just that. "That would be a satisfactory outcome. Not because I dislike them or think they're unpleasant people, but I don't want future presidents to think they can do these things."

The case against Bush does echo certain elements of the case against Nixon. As articulated by organizations like PDA and After Downing Street -- and as laid out in a spate of recent books by lawyers like Holtzman; John Bonifaz, a former Massachusetts Secretary of State candidate and After Downing Street co-founder; and Barbara Olshansky, who represents several Guantanamo detainees -- Bush stands accused of overseeing illegal surveillance and of lying to Congress and withholding information.

In 1973, the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment charging Nixon with similar crimes -- obstructing justice and spying on and harassing political opponents -- for personal political gain. Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment.

"We felt that the Constitutional system had worked," Holtzman recalls.

But the brief the would-be impeachers bring against Bush and Cheney is more sweeping than the 1973 case against Nixon. A list of impeachable offenses listed on After Downing Street's website includes the President's "allowing his administration to condone torture," threatening the use of force against Iran, his use of presidential signing statements to revise laws passed by Congress, the dropping of cluster bombs in Iraq, and Bush's failure to take reasonable steps to protect New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina.

Most mainstream legal scholars, including many who have been deeply critical of the Bush administration, would disagree that most of these alleged offenses fit the "high crimes and misdemeanors" requirement set out in the Constitution for impeachment. But on wiretapping in particular, some allow that there is an argument to be made.

"It's an allegation of serious criminal misconduct arising out of the exercise of the power of the presidency," says Mark Tushnet, a professor at Harvard Law School. "If it turns out that the President was authorizing illegal activity, it's comparable to Nixon."

For Democratic strategists, though, legal arguments are beside the point. Their case against pursuing impeachment is straightforwardly political. While every poll shows deep dissatisfaction with Bush and some show a conditional support for impeachment, even registered Democrats don't tend to list impeachment among their top priorities.

Pursuing impeachment today, Democratic leaders argue, would galvanize a Republican Party that's currently quite discouraged with Bush.

"In an ironic way it does George Bush a favor," says Rep. Barney Frank, Democrat from Newton. "He is losing the national debate on most issues, he is losing support among Republicans, and impeachment would almost certainly allow him to rally lots of Republicans."

It would also, they argue, put an end to any hope of passing significant legislation in the remaining year and a half of the current Congress. Congressional politics, says Ruy Teixeira, a political analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress, "is a zero-sum game: the resources and energy you put into trying to impeach Bush don't go into other things."

That legislative sclerosis, Frank argues, would only be worsened by the inevitable sharpening of partisan lines that impeachment would create. "The single most important thing for Congress to do is to get us out of Iraq," says Frank. "And especially in the Senate, that can't be done without Republican votes."

For impeachment proponents like Carpenter and Swanson -- who are optimistic that their cause will find broad support in the coming months -- gridlock would be a small price to pay to restore the Constitution's balance of powers. But they also dispute the zero-sum argument. Again, they look to Nixon.

"The overwhelming pressure of impeachment forced Nixon to back off, to not veto bills," says Swanson. "It put Nixon on the defensive."

According to Swanson, the impending threat of impeachment allowed the Democratic-controlled Congress to create the Endangered Species Act, to raise the minimum wage, and cut off funding for the Vietnam War.

"There's a grain of truth to that," concedes Stanley Kutler, a retired professor of law and history at the University of Wisconsin and the author of "The Wars of Watergate." Nixon was weakened, Kutler says, by the prospect of impeachment. But what truly cost Nixon, Kutler points out, was not Democratic support for impeachment, overwhelming though it was, but Republican support for it. "I can flat-out tell you there's not going to be any impeachment until and unless you have Republican votes," Kutler says.

And the difficulties that the impeachment movement is having convincing Democrats to sign on suggests that it's going to have even less luck with Republicans.

Ultimately, the decision is a political one. Even in Nixon's case, Kutler points out, some Republicans stood by the president until the bitter end. Among them was a first-term Mississippi congressman on the judiciary committee named Trent Lott, who declared himself opposed to impeaching presidents. A quarter-century later, as Senate majority leader, he helped lead the drive to impeach Clinton.

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail