Fresh from being arrested on Capitol Hill, along with 45 other activists demanding that Congress get about the business of impeaching George Bush and Dick Cheney, Cindy Sheehan has determined that she can no longer count on others to stop the war in Iraq or hold a lawless administration to account.
So she has announced that she will, indeed, challenge House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's bid for reelection next year.
It is a bold gesture, rooted in the deep frustration of the nation's most prominent anti-war activist with Pelosi's hyper-cautious approach to her duties as both the leader of the congressional opposition to an unpopular president and as a sworn defender of the Constitution.
This is the context in which Sheehan proposes to challenge Pelosi. "At the end of this day, Speaker Pelosi has not supported impeachment and has not upheld her oath of office to 'protect and defend' the Constitution," says the challenger.
Sheehan's bid, presumably on an independent line, will be uphill all the way. Pelosi has all the advantages of incumbency -- and more. Closely tied for decades to the Democratic political establishment of San Francisco, Pelosi and her campaign team know just about everything there is to know about winning elections there. And, as the Speaker of the House, she has the ability to deliver both on the practical and egotistical needs of the city by the bay. Additionally, she has the ability to raise and spend more money than any opponent.
With all of this said, however, Sheehan has standing.
It is not just that she enjoys her own prominence, and a measure of sympathy and respect, as the mother of slain soldier Casey Sheehan who turned her personal grief into a powerful call for accountability from President Bush and those who were responsible for the illegal and immoral war that claimed Casey's life.
What makes Sheehan a potentially credible challenger is the fact that, by any reasonable measure, she is more in touch with the true passions of San Francisco's voters than Pelosi. Pelosi is a war critic, but she has never gone to the mat on the issue. San Franciscans, on the other hand, have voted overwhelmingly for immediate withdrawal. Similarly, Pelosi says that impeachment is "off the table," despite the fact that San Franciscans voted by a 3-2 margin last fall in favor of holding the president and vice president to account.
For Sheehan, it is Pelosi's determination to protect Bush and Cheney from demands for accountability that tipped the balance in favor of making the race against the Speaker.
And it is Sheehan's faith that Bush and Cheney must be held to account -- not just to constrain them but to constrain the excesses of future presidents and vice presidents -- that will define her challenge to Pelosi. There is no question that the war in Iraq is an issue, but the deeper concern is with the political compromises that made possible that war and that have allowed for its continuation.
"If anybody would dare think that I am not serious, I would hope that they would look back at the last three years of my life and everything that I have sacrificed to restore our nation to one that obeys the rule of law and can be looked up to with respect once again in the international community and not as the hated laughingstock on the block," says Sheehan. "I am committed to challenging a two party system that has kept us in a state of constant warfare for the last 60 years and has become more and more beholden to special interests and has forgotten the faces of the people whom it represents."
Sheehan continues, "I am committed to using our strength as a country to wage peace and to elevate the status of every citizen in our country by converting the enduring war economy to a prosperous one with lasting peace."
If that sounds like a campaign speech, it is. And as someone who has appeared on dozens of platforms with Sheehan over the past few years, I can confirm that she is able to deliver a stemwinder in the best old populist sense.
Good speeches do not always translate to electoral success, however, as the Rev. Jesse Jackson learned in 1984 and again in 1988, when he mounted a pair of articulate but ultimately unsuccessful bids for the Democratic presidential nod.
Nothing about challenging Nancy Pelosi will be easy. Victory is unlikely. But, as George Bush will confirm, Cindy Sheehan has shaken the political establishment before. And she is determined to do so again -- not just as one "Peace Mom" running for Congress but as part of a political upheaval that she dares to dream might involve a lot more than a spirited contest in San Francisco.
"Someone needs to step up to the plate to do this and I challenge other Americans to do the same," says Sheehan. "Challenge the status quo, because the status quo is no good. We need to become plugged into our government once again as active participants not just passive voters."
John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"