From Vermont to Illinois to California, voters this fall will be deciding the fate not just of candidates for Congress but of President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
Communities that are home to more than 1 million Americans will have an opportunity to cast ballots on the question of whether Congress should begin impeachment proceedings against the president and vice president.
Only the U.S. House of Representatives can impeach a member of the executive branch, and only the Senate can convict the targeted official and remove him from office. But the founders always intended for citizens to have a voice in the process. Thomas Jefferson, who argued that power must ultimately rest in the people, as they alone are the surest defenders of the republic and its democratic aspirations, observed, "It behooves our citizens to be on their guard, to be firm in their principles, and full of confidence in themselves. We are able to preserve our self-government if we will but think so."
Duly troubled by a president and vice president who have launched wars without congressional declarations, who have spied without warrants, who have disregarded and disdained the Constitution, citizens across the country have put themselves to the task of preserving self-government by raising the call for impeachment. Dozens of communities have considered resolutions calling on Congress to act, and this fall's referendums will raise the volume.
The precise wording of the questions varies from town to town. Prepared with the assistance of activists with the Constitution Summer project (www.constitutionsummer.org), the propositions in San Francisco and Berkeley read like actual articles of impeachment. In urging members of the House to begin impeachment proceedings against Bush and Cheney, for instance, San Francisco's Proposition J goes far beyond now standard complaints regarding abuses of power related to invasion and occupation of Iraq and argues for holding the administration to account for the mismanagement of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
The proposal is more to the point in tiny Pittsville, Wisconsin -- population 866 -- where voters will be asked to vote "yes" or "no" on a local resolution that declares: "The U.S. House of Representatives should start an impeachment investigation against President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney now."
If the voters say yes, says Bob Hoch, organizer of the Wood County Impeachment Coalition's petition drives, a call to act will be dispatched to the state's congressional delegation -- two of whom, Madison Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Milwaukee Democrat Gwen Moore, have already joined a House call for an impeachment inquiry.
There are those who will suggest that referendum votes in handful of communities as distinct as San Francisco and Pittsville can't possibly mean much to the national discourse. But, surely, the cynics are wrong.
The referendums in those communities, and Montpelier, Vermont, and Urbana, Ill., and other locales across the land are classic illustrations of the petitioning for the redress of grievances that the Constitution does not merely protect but in fact encourages. The impeachment-from-below movement is the modern-day expression of the oldest of American ideals: No man, be he pauper or president, shall stand above the law. And it is wholly appropriate that it is beginning at the municipal level.
Former Harper's magazine editor Lewis Lapham, was asked during a recent visit to San Francisco: "Do you think that's the way we should go about impeachment -- municipally?"
"I don't see why not," Lapham, one of the Republic's most thoughtful and consistent defenders, replied. "I don't see any other way to go about it. I think that the impetus for any revival for democratic government is going to come not from a national level but from a municipal and state level."
There is something satisfying about the fact that the communities that are voting on impeachment -- which range from urban centers to college towns to rural towns -- cannot be stereotyped. That is as it should be, says Buzz Davis, the Veterans for Peace activist who has been leading the impeachment campaign that has qualified two referendums for the November ballots in Wisconsin cities and hopes to qualify many more for next spring's local election ballots. "Impeachment is not a partisan issue but a question of whether our nation will live under the rule of law as our Founding Fathers believed," argues Davis.
James Madison said that "it may, perhaps, on some occasion, be found necessary to impeach the president himself."
It would come as no surprise to Madison or Jefferson that citizens are the first to recognize the occasion and to call upon Congress to act. Nor would this trouble the founders; indeed, they would say that the impeachment-from-below movement is the truest expression of the patriotism that alone will preserve the republic.
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John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. "With The Genius of Impeachment," writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, "John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so." The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com