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Americans Believe Bush Should Be Impeached Even if Democratic Leaders Are Too Cowardly


Published on Friday, November 10, 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Breathing the 'I' Word
by Elizabeth Holzman

Though Democrats' gains on Tuesday were hard fought, they still pulled one big punch during the campaign. Party leaders chose to refrain from publicly uttering any "i" words -- investigation, immunity, and above all, impeachment -- and to dismiss those who did, for fear of somehow galvanizing disaffected GOP voters.

But whether they admit it or not, with a Democratic Party-led Congress, President Bush could well become the target of congressional investigations, challenges to presidential immunity and eventual impeachment inquiries. Big legislative changes are probably not in the cards, but willingness to use subpoena power and pursue investigations into controversial Bush administration actions and inactions are among the main things that will change under Democratic leadership of Congress.

Even if impeachment is "off the table," according to Democratic leaders such as Nancy Pelosi (who as the new Speaker of the House will be next in line for the presidency after Vice President Dick Cheney), recent national polls and impeachment-ballot initiatives in San Francisco, Berkeley, and two townships in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., and elsewhere, show it is on Americans' table. Leaving aside partisan "gotcha" tactics, such as the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, which fail because they lack public support or constitutional basis, Congress has been historically reluctant to undertake impeachment, including during Watergate. But it has done so when public sentiment reaches a boiling point and demands holding a president accountable, as it did in 1973 after President Richard Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

Today we may be closer to reaching that boiling point again than some may think. The Chronicle's online poll question this week surveyed readers, 77 percent of whom to date thought impeaching President Bush may be constitutionally required if the president were found to have abused the power of his office. A recent Newsweek national poll showed 53 percent of Americans thought impeachment should be on the agenda (either as a "top" or "lower" priority), with 44 percent opposing impeachment outright. Compare these numbers to 1998 polls, where an average of only 26 percent of Americans were open to or favored impeaching Clinton, while an average of 63 percent opposed it outright.

Public sentiment for impeachment is strong, and stands to grow stronger given a thoughtful discussion of constitutional standards and a full and fair inquiry, one that allows the president to explain and defend his conduct fully.

But beyond public opinion, there are legal and constitutional considerations that make impeachment a live concern now. High crimes and misdemeanors, the constitutional standard for impeachment and removal from office, may well apply to President Bush's systemic abuses of power and failures to uphold the law. These include directing illegal domestic wiretapping and surveillance, detainee abuse and torture, indifference to human life in responding to Hurricane Katrina, ill-equipping U.S. soldiers and failing to plan for the Iraq occupation, deceiving Congress and Americans about reasons for the war in Iraq and possibly seeking to cover up those deceptions by leaking misleading classified information. These actions have disturbing parallels with offenses for which Nixon was impeached.

I served on the House Judiciary Committee which voted to impeach him. It did painstaking, bipartisan work in assessing and applying constitutional and legal standards to Nixon's actions. Measured by the same objective standards as were used in Nixon's case, an impeachment inquiry into Bush's actions would be appropriate, and a vote to impeach at the end of that inquiry would not be a surprising outcome.

When checks and balances fail to restrain a president from abuses of power or from subverting the Constitution, impeachment and removal from office is the framers' remedy. It is the tool they gave future generations to protect democracy and the rule of law, and not to explore it now would be a culpable failure to follow their intent. That's why U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in line to chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and some 37 congressional Democrats, already have uttered the "i" word and raised the issue of impeachment before the election, even though the Democratic leaders didn't want to discuss it. Whether out of political strategy or timidity we fail to breathe a word about, much less openly debate, impeaching a president so committed to executive overreach, Americans -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- risk undermining the Constitution and compromising our ability to hold future presidents accountable under the law.

Elizabeth Holtzman represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1973 to 1981. She is the co-author, with Cynthia L. Cooper, of "The Impeachment of George W. Bush: A Practical Guide for Concerned Citizens," (Nation Books, 2006).

©2006 San Francisco Chronicle