Recently PBS’s Bill Moyers Journal devoted a full hour to the subject of impeaching George W. Bush and Dick Cheney–the first such attention by a national network. The remarkable thing about the response was not its size or intensity. After visiting more than a dozen states to address the issue, I have come to understand the depth of the public’s desire for accountability. But it was only after Moyers invited conservative legal scholar Bruce Fein and me to lay out not merely the specific grounds for impeachment but the historical rationale for applying the “heroic medicine”–the Founders’ preferred cure for a constitutional crisis–that I fully understood the extent to which Americans recognize that this is about a lot more than the high crimes and misdemeanors of a regal President and his monarchical Vice President. The stakes are enormous: If Bush and Cheney are not held accountable, this Administration will hand off to its successors a toolbox of powers greater than any executive has ever held–more authority, concentrated in fewer hands, than the Founders could have conceived or would have allowed.

Among the thousands of responses after the program aired in mid-July, there was a steady theme: This is no longer a partisan issue. Inside the Beltway, the calculus these days rarely gets beyond the next election; but outside it there are tens of millions of Americans worried about the next generation–indeed, about the fate of the Republic. To be sure, there are Bush haters among their number, fierce partisans who–in an echo of the Republicans who a decade ago went after Bill Clinton–have adopted a “by any means necessary” approach to the goal of cutting short the Bush/Cheney tenure. But the national conversation in which we engaged after the Moyers program aired suggested that they are a minority of the 54 percent of Americans who tell pollsters it’s time to open impeachment hearings on Cheney’s misdeeds, and the only slightly smaller number who favor the process for Bush.

The Washington elites still try to dismiss the impeachment movement as an ill-considered reflexive reaction to a President Americans don’t like and a Vice President they fear–or, worse yet, as some sort of partisan payback. But the plain truth is that most of those who responded to the Moyers discussion recognize that the point of impeachment is not the transitory crimes of small men but the long-term definition of great offices. Fein, an official in the Reagan Justice Department, and I come from different points on the ideological spectrum, but we agree that the Founders intended impeachment less as a punishment for officeholders than as a protection against the dangerous expansion of executive authority. If abuse of the system of checks and balances, lies about war, approval of illegal spying and torture, signing statements that improperly arrogate legislative powers to the executive branch, schemes to punish political foes and refusals to cooperate with Congressional inquiries are not judged as high crimes, the next President, no matter from which party, will assume the authority to exercise some or all of these illegitimate powers.

The burgeoning movement for impeachment is a rational response to a moment when polls tell us that roughly three-quarters of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. This Administration has not just let Americans down; it has frightened them. A great many understand, intuitively or explicitly, that we are experiencing a constitutional crisis and that impeachment proceedings are the proper tonic. Unfortunately, key Democrats continue to mistake the medicine for the disease. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi still keeps impeachment “off the table”; she and her advisers fear that if they allow Judiciary Committee chair John Conyers to open impeachment hearings, it will rally the Republican base in defense of Bush and Cheney. History suggests she’s wrong: Opposition parties that have pursued impeachment in a high-minded manner have, in every instance, maintained or improved their position in Congress and have usually won the presidency in the next election. Pelosi should step out of the way and let her colleagues restore the rule of law. More than a dozen have shown their desire to do so by co-sponsoring Representative Dennis Kucinich’s articles of impeachment against Cheney.

Clearly, impeachment is not just around the corner; even Senator Russ Feingold’s “relatively modest response” to the crisis–censure resolutions against Bush and Cheney–faces an uphill struggle. At this late stage, it will be difficult to turn the need for accountability into action on Capitol Hill. But even an impeachment effort that falls short lays down a historical marker; it tells Bush and Cheney and all those who succeed them that an executive branch that imagines itself superior to Congress and the rule of law will arouse popular fury.

George Bush, it is said, has begun to worry about his legacy. The rest of us should, too. No matter how unsuccessful we may think his tenure has been, it will leave a mark on the Republic. If that mark is of a presidency without limit or accountability, Bush and Cheney will have changed the country far more fundamentally than any of their predecessors.