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John Nichols: For republic's sake, Pelosi must ponder impeachment

By John Nichols,

When my friend Salli Martyniak heard that Nancy Pelosi would be featured on the CBS news program "60 Minutes," she got excited. Like a lot of professional women who have been turned into political activists by six years of Bush-Cheney-ism, Martyniak busied herself during the recently completed election campaign doing everything she could to end Republican control of the House. She put the right campaign signs in her yard, she hosted fundraising events, and she knocked on doors and made calls on behalf of the campaign to change the Congress. And she lit up at the prospect of the first female speaker of the House.

But when Pelosi's segment aired on "60 Minutes" three Sundays before the election, Martyniak said, "I was shouting at the television. How could she say that? How could she so miss the point of being an opposition leader?"

What was it that so infuriated my friend and millions of other Americans who want this election to be about holding an out-of-control presidency to account?

Pelosi, the House Democratic leader who surfed a wave of voter resentment against the Bush team into the speaker's office in Tuesday's voting, bluntly declared that it would not be the purpose of a Democratic House to restore the rule of law. She made her comment despite the fact that more than three dozen members of her own caucus - including U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison - have joined U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, who will chair the Judiciary Committee in the new Congress, in calling for an inquiry into possibly impeachable offenses by the administration.

AP photo
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
"Impeachment is off the table," Pelosi declared, calling it "a waste of time."

A waste of time?

Not in the eyes of the American people. A majority of those surveyed last fall by Ipsos Public Affairs, the firm that measures public opinion on behalf of The Associated Press, agreed with the statement: "If President Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq, Congress should consider holding him accountable by impeaching him."

Given what has been learned over the past year about the deceits employed to guide the United States into Iraq and about the quagmire that has ensued, support for impeachment has undoubtedly risen.

So why has Pelosi been so determined to disassociate herself from talk of impeachment?

Is she fearful that challenging a president who is still popular with conservative voters will cause trouble at home? Spare me. Pelosi represents what may well be the most impeachment-friendly district in the country. On Tuesday, San Francisco voters approved a referendum, Proposition J, urging impeachment.

Since it is impossible to imagine that the House Democratic leader honestly disagrees with the merits of calling the president and vice president to account - especially when, if seen through to its conclusion, the successful impeachment of Bush and Cheney could make her president - she must believe that impeachment is bad politics on the national scale.

But is impeachment really a political loser? Not if history is a guide. There have been nine attempts since the founding of the republic to move articles of impeachment against a sitting president. In the cases in which impeachment was proposed by members of an opposition party, that party either maintained or improved its position in Congress at the next general election. In seven instances the party that proposed impeachment secured the presidency in the next election.

Pelosi's problem appears to be that she doesn't want to be accused of repeating the partisan misuse of impeachment that Republicans perpetrated in 1998 and 1999. But the misdeeds of Bush and Cheney are precisely the sort of wrongdoing that impeachment was designed to check and balance.

As a political reporter who has spent a good many years trying to unlock the mysteries of the Democratic Party, I contend that an openness to impeachment is not just good but essential politics for Pelosi and her caucus. The Democratic victory on Tuesday was not secured because the party proposed a bold agenda and won on it. Pelosi shied away from making presidential accountability a central theme of the campaign; arguably, she shied away from central themes in general - except, of course, the promise that Democrats will behave more admirably than Republicans.

To do something that will matter in the long term, something that will give Democrats the moral authority and the political pull that will allow them to correct the country's course, Pelosi and her fellow partisans must abandon the hyperstrategic politics of a contemporary status quo, which prevents surprises for entrenched officials, wealthy campaign contributors and powerful lobbyists. And the first step in that process involves embracing the oath members of the House take - to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

It is impossible to support and defend the Constitution in this era of executive excess while taking impeachment off the table. As long as impeachment is wrongly portrayed as the political third rail by Pelosi, standards of accountability remain low, and prospects for fundamental improvement in the national condition are diminished.

The benefit of an impeachment fight to an opposition party comes not in the removal of an individual who happens to wear the label of another party. Rather, it comes in the elevation of the discourse to a higher ground where politicians and voters can ponder the deeper meaning of democracy.

When the whole of a political party finally concludes that it must take up the weighty responsibility of impeaching a president, as Democrats did in 1974 but Republicans never fully did in 1998, its language is clarified and transfigured. What Walt Whitman referred to as "long dumb voices" are suddenly transformed into clarion calls as a dialogue of governmental marginalia gives way to discussion of the intent of the founders, the duty of the people's representatives, and the renewal of the republic.

When a political party speaks well and wisely of impeachment, frustrated voters come to see it in a new way. It is no longer merely the tribune of its own ambition. It becomes a champion of the American experiment. To be sure, such a leap entails risk. But it is the risk-averse political party that is most likely to remain the permanent opposition.

If Pelosi hopes to build a new and more vital relationship with the American people, she must overcome the irrational fear of presidential accountability in general and impeachment in particular that have so paralyzed Democrats. Tuesday's Democratic win resulted from the recognition by voters across the country that America needs an opposition party, not to reshuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic, but to turn the ship of state in a new direction. Pelosi owes it to Salli Martyniak and all the other activists who poured their hearts and souls into making her the next speaker of the House to put impeachment back on the table. She owes it to her San Francisco constituents, who so clearly favor impeachment. Most importantly, Pelosi owes it to the republic that as speaker she will have it in her power to restore and redeem.

John Nichols, the associate editor of The Capital Times, is the author of "The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism" (The New Press), on which this article is based. He will discuss the book and impeachment Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. at Borders West. E-mail:

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The author should be aware of the fact that the Democratic Party gets most of its money from corporate sources. The same sources that finance the Republicans. The corporate power structure doesn't want impeachment. Mystery solved.

Why is a sophisticated journalist like John Nichols pretending not to know this? Why are progressives continually shocked when Democrats on the corporate payroll act like corporate employees? Why are progressive Democrats so afraid of acknowledging and confronting this problem?

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