Barack Obama may have made some of the more radical elements of his party angry yesterday by eschewing impeachment in the next eighteen months, but only because he injected a sense of rationality to the partisan struggle. Obama argued that impeachment should be reserved for “grave” crimes, and that elections provide the most cleansing agent to poor government:
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama laid out list of political shortcomings he sees in the Bush administration but said he opposes impeachment for either President George W. Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney.
Obama said he would not back such a move, although he has been distressed by the “loose ethical standards, the secrecy and incompetence” of a “variety of characters” in the administration.
“There’s a way to bring an end to those practices, you know: vote the bums out,” the presidential candidate said, without naming Bush or Cheney. “That’s how our system is designed.”
Obama has this correct, not just legally but also strategically. First, although many people like to claim that impeachment is a political tool, the Constitution makes it clear that the remedy should only apply to actual criminal conduct. “High crimes and misdemeanors” makes it plain that the founders didn’t want a Parliament that removed an executive for a simple loss of confidence, but an independent executive whose election should only be nullified for actual and provable criminal conduct.
Strategically, it’s difficult to understand why anyone still argues for impeachment — but the fact that Obama has to address this shows they do. George Bush and Dick Cheney have 18 months left in office, and sixteen until the next election. Even if the Democrats started impeachment now, it would probably take that long to gather enough evidence for a win in the House, let alone the two-thirds in the Senate needed for removal, which would be the entire point.
They would risk a huge backlash from moderates and centrists who would see this as a stunt, much the same way the Republicans did in 1998 — only this time, it would come in a presidential election cycle instead of the midterms. It might be the one event that could restore George Bush’s flagging approval ratings, and it would be political suicide for a Democratic Congress that has done nothing in its first six months.
Finally, Obama understands that such a move only guarantees to poison political debate over the next decade. He told the constituent breakfast that he’d rather attend to policy than foolish attack strategies. In the sense that Obama represents the future of American politics, it offers some hope that the acid partisanship of the last generation may give way to something more practical and ennobling, and I say that as someone who disagrees with Obama on almost every policy position.
Will he get credit for this among his allies? Try taking a read through the comments on the USA Today story, and decide for yourself.