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Getting Serious About the "I" Word | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Getting Serious About the "I" Word

Former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough had me on his MSNBC show tonight to talk about impeachment.

It was smart, civil discussion that treated the prospect of impeaching the president as a serious matter.

Scarborough took the lead in suggesting that Bush's biggest problem might be that Republicans in the House and Senate who -- fearful of the threat Bush poses to their political survival -- do not appear to be rallying 'round the president. The host's sentiments were echoed by two other guests, columnist Mike Barnicle and Salon's Joan Walsh.

The impetus for the show was Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel's ongoing discussion of the impeachment prospect -- Hagel's not quite a supporter of sanctioning Bush, more a speculator about the prospect -- and a new column by Robert Novak that suggests Bush has dwindling support within the congressional wing of the GOP.

Speaking about impeachment on ABC's "This Week," Hagel said, "Any president who says 'I don't care' or 'I will not respond to what the people of this country are saying about Iraq or anything else' or 'I don't care what the Congress does, I am going to proceed' -- if a president really believes that, then there (are) ways to deal with that."

Novak wrote "The I-word (incompetence) is used by Republicans in describing the Bush administration generally. Several of them I talked to described a trifecta of incompetence: the Walter Reed hospital scandal, the FBI's misuse of the Patriot Act and the U.S. attorneys firing fiasco. 'We always have claimed that we were the party of better management,' one House leader told me. 'How can we claim that anymore?'"

Scarborough drew the two statements together for the purpose of asking whether Bush could count on Republicans to block moves by Congressional Democrats to hold Bush to account for high crimes and misdemeanors.

When a conservative commentator who was on the frontlines of Newt Gingrich's "Republican revolution" entertains a thoughtful conversation about the politics and processes of impeachment on a major cable news network, it should be clear that the cloistered conversation about sanctioning this president has begun to open up.

No, Scarborough is not jumping on the impeachment bandwagon.

He is simply treating the prospect seriously, as did CNN's Wolf Blitzer earlier in the day.

What I told Scarborough is what I have been saying in public forums for the past several weeks: We are nearing an impeachment moment. The Alberto Gonzales scandal, the under-covered but very real controversy involving abuses of the Patriot Act and the president's increasingly belligerent refusals to treat Congress as a co-equal branch of government are putting the discussion of presidential accountability onto the table from which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has tried to remove it.

Does this mean Bush and Cheney will be impeached? That, of course, will be decided by the people. Impeachment at its best is always an organic process; it needs popular support or it fizzles -- as with the attempt by House Republican leaders to remove former President Clinton in a process that, fairly or not, seemed to be all about blue dresses.

While the people saved Clinton – by signaling to their representatives that they opposed sanctioning a president's personal morals – it does not appear that they are inclined to protect Bush.

With each new revelation about what Gonzales did at the behest of the Bush White House to politicize prosecutions by U.S. Attorneys, the revulsion with the way this president has disregarded the Constitution and the rule of law becomes more intense. And citizens are not cutting their president much slack.

A new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll -- conducted over the weekend -- shows that, by close to a 3-to-1 margin, Americans want Congress to issue subpoenas to force White House officials to testify in the Gonzales case. Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed say the president should drop his claim of executive privilege in this matter, while only 26 percent agree with the reasoning Bush has used to try and block a meaningful inquiry.

If the president wants to get in a fight with Congress over how to read the Constitution, it appears that the people will back Congress. And that backing is what will begin to restore the backbones of House members who, despite Pelosi's attempts to quiet talk of impeachment, are getting more and more intrigued by the prospect of holding this president to account.

As Hagel says, "This is not a monarchy. There are ways to deal with (executive excess). And I would hope the president understands that."

If Bush doesn't recognize this reality now, he soon will.

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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.'"

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