It would be wonderful to evict George W. Bush–quite possibly the worst President in our entire history–from the White House. Thus one can readily understand the temptation to talk about impeaching him. But we should recognize that this conversation is triggered not only by Bush’s own performance as President but also, and perhaps more important, by one of the greatest defects of the Constitution, the impeachment clause. Thanks to the Founders, we were given a Constitution that perversely makes us “better off” with a criminal in the White House instead of someone who is “merely” grotesquely incompetent. The reason is that the Constitution provides us with a language to get rid of a criminal President, but it provides us no language, or process, for terminating the tenure of an incompetent one. Unfortunately, this was a deliberate decision by the Framers, who rejected an altogether sensible proposal to make “maladministration” an impeachable offense for fear that this would give Congress too much power.
Only because of the Constitution are serious progressives engaging in an entirely fruitless campaign to impeach Bush by describing him as a criminal. It is fruitless for two quite different reasons. The first, and more practical, is that there is simply no possibility that Bush will actually be removed from office in the twenty-four months that unfortunately remain to him. One might well contemplate impeachment if there were a possibility of its being successful. But the House Democratic leadership has rejected the idea, not least because there is no possibility that the constitutionally required two-thirds of a nearly evenly divided Senate would vote to convict an impeached George W. Bush. Thus, advocates of impeachment are in effect supporting a strategy doomed not only to fail but also to be perceived by most of the country as a dangerous distraction from the pressing problems facing the country.
House Republicans in 1998, who knew for certain that Bill Clinton would never be convicted by the Senate, could behave with reckless abandon in part because much of the country did not perceive itself as facing grave problems. Democrats today do not have that luxury.
But there is a second reason to be wary of the impeachment conversation: It inevitably becomes a highly legalistic one about exactly what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors.” It is not enough that the President be a criminal; he must be a criminal of a certain gravity. If there is anything the country needs less at this point than a self-defeating political strategy, it is the further domination of public debate by lawyers trading jargon-ridden charges and countercharges about the criminal liability of the President. Almost no one was genuinely edified by the legal debate that occurred in 1998. Most of the public believed that most of the lawyers–or at least those on “the other side”–who participated in that debate were motivated by partisan political considerations. The same would be true today.
Although I admire some of those calling for impeachment, one should recognize that some of their ostensibly legal claims are all too dubious. Consider the charge that Bush lied to the country during the run-up to the war, which may well be true. If lying to the public about matters of grave importance were an impeachable offense, however, almost no President–including, for starters, Franklin Roosevelt and his deceptions regarding lend-lease–would survive. It is even more difficult to construct criminality out of Bush’s reckless disregard of the consequences of Katrina. It is not, however, at all difficult to accuse him of maladministration and disqualifying incompetence.