What decided this election more than any other factor, was the angry realization by a great many Americans that their president has lied to them about matters of war and peace, approved the warrantless wiretapping of their telephone conversations, and displayed a disdain for the Constitution and the rule of law unprecedented in the history of the American experiment. In other words, Democrats owe their electoral resurrection to a serious case of voters’ remorse with regard to President Bush. Because of this, House Democrats have an obligation to the American people to check and balance the executive branch. The best way to do that is to get serious about impeachment. Indeed, if they don’t, Democrats will suffer for disregarding not just their oaths of office, but also the will of the voters who entrusted them with the power to right the Republic. On this, the historical record is very clear: Holding the president to account is good for the country and good politics.
The history of impeachment is so rarely told that most Americans—and most members of Congress—see it as political kryptonite. In fact, impeachment has been an honorable, frequently employed tool from the nation’s earliest years, when it was enshrined in the Constitution as the essential corrective to executive excess. The genius of impeachment is that it can restore a proper balance of powers even when the procedure isn’t seen through to completion. This is as the Founders intended. It was well understood in the Republic’s early days that the point of impeachment was to prevent the presidency from degenerating into the “elected despotism” that Thomas Jefferson dreaded. If a president could be a “king for four years,” they reasoned, then he could easily abuse his powers to make himself a king for longer, or worse, launch the wars of whim that James Madison saw as the “true nurse of executive aggrandizement.”
Over the past 200 years, members of the House have proposed articles of impeachment against nine presidents. None of these initiatives reached the ultimate conclusion of a Senate vote convicting the president, and a resulting removal from office. Yet in most instances, the threat of impeachment effectively checked lawbreaking, irresponsible, or incompetent executives. When the Founders devised the impeachment process, they created a deliberately broad standard, which has been accepted through history by successive Congresses and the American people. To prove that an executive official is guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” would-be impeachers make not a classic legal case, but rather a moral, practical—and yes, political—case that a member of the executive branch ought not be allowed to continue behaving badly. As such, when a president or vice president who is threatened with impeachment quits his office, or simply quits abusing it, the process has, for all practical purposes, succeeded.
Presidents John Tyler, James K. Polk, Andrew Johnson, and Harry Truman all forfeited opportunities to seek new terms after members of the House proposed impeachment or censure. Many factors entered into each man’s calculus. But the fact that congressional discussions of impeachment attracted serious media coverage cannot be discounted. Nor should we underestimate the influence of an impeachment debate on actors in other branches of government. In 1952, while the United States was mired in the conflict in Korea, Truman claimed expansive war powers in order to seize the nation’s steel plants. Conservative Republicans in the House quickly proposed impeachment, garnering considerable national attention and support; Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen (R-Ill.) declared on a primetime national radio program that Congress could not “shirk its duty” to check and balance the president. The next day, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and scheduled arguments on the issue almost immediately, declaring: “Although this case has proceeded no further than the preliminary injunction stage, it is ripe for determination of the constitutional validity of the Executive Order on the record presented.” In short order, a court appointed entirely by Democrats—and which included four Truman nominees—blocked the seizures. The landmark decision remains a key component of the jurisprudence protecting against abuses of executive power: Earlier this year, when the Supreme Court pronounced Bush’s military tribunals unlawful in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the court invoked the steel mills decision to demonstrate that the president had overstepped his constitutional authority.
Or, consider Vice President Spiro Agnew’s departure from office. Early in 1973, as Agnew was preparing to run for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, newspapers reported that as governor of Maryland, he had illegally taken money from contractors. Agnew planned to ride out the controversy, assuming he could use backroom deals and White House muscle to pressure federal prosecutors to back off. Though not a powerful vice president, Agnew was the Nixon administration’s point man for attacks on the anti-war movement and congressional liberals. With Watergate evolving into a major scandal, he was expected to rally the troops against attempts to hold the president to account. Instead, Agnew faced the first accountability crisis. Soon after a number of House Republicans (including one Trent Lott from Mississippi) cosponsored an impeachment resolution, White House aides who feared a “double impeachment” scenario forced his hand, and Agnew quit.
These precedents tell us that, in a very real sense, it doesn’t matter whether the new House impeaches Bush (and, for good measure, Vice President Cheney) or simply makes it clear that the option is on the table. The specter of impeachment remains the powerful force for accountability that the Founders intended. So why hasn’t Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) embraced the proposal by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the party’s ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, to create a “select committee to investigate the Administration’s intent to go to war before congressional authorization, manipulation of pre-war intelligence, encouraging and countenancing torture, retaliating against critics, and to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment”? Conyers, the only remaining veteran on the committee of both the Nixon and Clinton impeachment fights, can’t be dismissed as a mere partisan bomb-thrower. He has proposed a bipartisan panel like the one convened to consider Nixon’s abuses, and has supported his charges with an extensively researched 250-page report. However, Pelosi continues to suggest that if Democrats pursue impeachment, they will be painted as vindictive partisans and sustain long-term political damage. She is wrong, and her misreading of the politics of accountability will lead Democrats to squander the political opportunity they now possess.
The notion that impeachment is “bad politics” for an opposition party simply isn’t grounded in reality. Of the nine instances when impeachment resolutions were filed against presidents, the opposition party secured the presidency in the next election seven times—most recently when Bush succeeded Clinton. After members of an opposition party pressed for impeachment in Congress, that party has almost always maintained or improved its position in the House at the next general election. After conservative Republicans proposed Truman’s impeachment in the fall of 1952, their party took control of both the House and the presidency.
Democrats who moved to impeach Nixon in the summer of 1974 dramatically increased their presence in the House that fall. Even after Republicans bungled their impeachment of Clinton, their party retained control of the House—losing just five seats in the 1998 election that preceded the impeachment vote, and just two in the 2000 election that followed it. And, of course, they also captured the White House.
However, Democratic strategists have rewritten the history of the Clinton debacle to argue that impeachment is an electoral suicide pact. This notion that an opposition party must pull its punches rather than aggressively oppose a lawless presidency is the biggest mistake in politics.
In fact, impeachment is almost always smart politics for an opposition party, particularly one that is struggling to define itself. This is precisely because the initiative is so risky. Things have to be done right; impeachment cannot be a mere partisan game. The opposition party must persuade not merely its own members, but some members of the president’s party, as well as a majority of Americans, that a commander in chief has so fundamentally betrayed his office that his removal must be contemplated. By marshalling convincing arguments to this end, an opposition party (and sometimes the reforming wing of an offending president’s party) asserts itself as something more than a sports team competing for a title. When an entire political party speaks wisely of the weighty responsibility of impeachment, as Democrats did in 1974 but Republicans never fully did in 1998, frustrated voters see it afresh. A previously listless and disengaged political force begins to appear as an appropriate guardian of the nation’s values.
This, of course, is the essential requirement of American politics, as opposed to the game currently played by so many retainers of both parties, who are interested only in maintaining their own entrenched status. Before the Democratic or Republican parties took shape, and even before Federalists and Anti-Federalists assembled their forces, the politics of the United States was defined by a party of revolution against
the royal prerogative, the divine right of kings, and the corruptions of empire associated with unfettered monarchs.
A Democratic Party that has yet to effectively identify itself as a 21st-century force can learn a lot from 18th-century language and passions. Speaking unflinchingly about the rule of law and the legislative branch’s duty to hold the executive to account isn’t a civics lesson. It’s a return to the fundamental discussion of the nation. If Democrats hope to build a new, more vital relationship with Americans, one that runs deeper than any single issue or individual, party leaders must overcome the fear of proposing impeachment that has paralyzed them as an opposition force.
America needs an opposition party not merely to reshuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic, but to turn the ship of state back towards the Constitution, the system of checks and balances, and to that most appealing of American principles: the idea that the rule of law applies to every citizen.
Such a direction will win support from Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, Independents, and principled Republicans. As Jefferson, the first Democrat, and the first democrat, once explained: “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one which should not only be founded on free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among general bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.”
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John Nichols, who covers politics for The Nation, is the author of The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism, from which this article is adapted.