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Worth Fighting For

Democratic leaders in Congress had their hands full in the past few weeks, trying to pass laws, keep the country running and show voters they could make a difference. It didn’t go well. Between the torture debate, President Bush’s war budget, the energy bill, free trade with Peru, the failed attempt to increase children’s health coverage and the Republican gambit to “recognize” Christmas, it wasn’t a banner season for the Democratic agenda.

With so much on the line, the last thing the party chiefs want now is a floor revolt from mavericks demanding an impeachment. It goes against the button-down image the Democrats want to cultivate, and makes them look like the 1960s radicals they’re often accused of being. They don’t want to sink to the level of the Republican inquisitors who tortured Bill Clinton.

Impeachment would be, in the words of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a “distraction” from the lawmakers’ job of making laws. Besides, they say, with only a year left to the Bush presidency, impeachment would be pointless even if it succeeded, which it won’t.

Nevertheless, an impeachment revolt is under way. A call for the impeachment of Vice President Dick Cheney was introduced in the House last April by left-wing presidential long-shot Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. Kucinich argued that the party’s image is less important than its principles, and anyway the Bush administration is so unpopular that impeachment will probably help the Democrats, not hurt them. He and his allies believe that the contrast with the Republican’s Clinton witch hunt would only show how responsible the Democrats are. As for the clock running out, that’s precisely why it’s urgent — not to unseat anyone, which they won’t, but to get the facts on record.

Besides, they say, they have a duty to the Constitution, given the abundant evidence — betraying a covert American agent, falsifying intelligence to start an unjustified war, systematically violating individuals’ rights by illegal wiretapping and more. Under the circumstances, they say, removing a president or vice president from office is not optional but mandatory. The Constitution, Article 2, Section 4, says that executive officers, when found guilty of high crimes, “shall be removed from office.” Nothing there about “can be removed if you’re not too scared.”

Of course, the real game is about power. Kucinich’s resolution was hustled to the House Judiciary Committee, where it was buried by the chairman, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan.

On November 6, after being ignored for a half-year, Kucinich formally resubmitted his resolution. By now it had picked up 22 House co-sponsors (eventually growing to 24). The day after, a second resolution was introduced by Florida Rep. Robert Wexler, along with two Midwestern colleagues, demanding that the judiciary committee bring Kucinich’s bill promptly to a vote. This was ignored, too.

For what it’s worth, of the measure’s 27 signed backers — Kucinich and his 24 co-sponsors, Wexler and an ally plus one more who signed both — fully 18, or two-thirds, are either black or Jewish. It shows that the old coalitions for justice are hardier than you think. It also shows how limited is the power of minorities when they can’t mobilize the majority.

Two more months of silence followed, including a near-total press blackout. This month, Wexler submitted an opinion article to The Washington Post, The New York Times and Miami Herald. All three found it unfit to print. On December 14, failing all else, he launched a Web site, Within two weeks it gathered 100,000 signed supporters, despite press silence.

What happens next? That’s up to the Democratic leadership. They could hold firm, bury the Kucinich-Wexler initiative and spend the next year passing good laws, most of which will be vetoed, confirming the public’s worst images of Democratic fecklessness. They might ultimately take next year’s slam-dunk election and blow it, leaving us with four more Republican years.

Or they could choose courage over caution and begin impeachment proceedings. No, nobody will be removed from office. There’s neither time nor national will for that. But the nation will be served notice that not all impeachments are frivolous or nakedly partisan, and that there are limits to executive power in a democracy. That’s a principle worth fighting for.

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