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Wall Street Journal Uses I Word: Graphic Tells the Story
Impeachment Proves Risky Political Issue
Some Democratic Activists Push Removing Bush From Office, But Mainstream Steers Clear
By JEANNE CUMMINGS, Wall Street Journal
March 6, 2006; Page A4
If Democratic candidate Tony Trupiano wins a Michigan House seat this fall, he pledges that one of his first acts will be to introduce articles of impeachment against President Bush.
That has earned Mr. Trupiano the endorsement of ImpeachPAC, a group of Democratic activists seeking to remove Mr. Bush from office. ImpeachPAC's Web site lists 14 candidates offering similar commitments, which are reminiscent of the Republican drive to oust former President Bill Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
But Mr. Trupiano's pledge hasn't much impressed Democratic Party leaders, who are keeping their distance from impeachment talk. They remember how the effort boomeranged on Republicans in the 1998 midterm elections, when Mr. Clinton's adversaries expected to gain House seats but lost ground instead.
"If you are looking for a message to take back the House and the Senate or the White House, there are better ways to go about it," says Democratic communications ace Joe Lockhart, a media aide to Mr. Clinton during the Republican impeachment effort.
That puts mainstream Democrats, on this issue at least, echoing the Republican National Committee. "Voters elect candidates because they understand the issues rather than engage in leftwing fantasies," says RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt. It also guarantees tension between some of the party's most fervent members and its electoral strategists, who are directing efforts to recapture Capitol Hill.
Impeachment advocates are undaunted. "Just because you can't win a political battle doesn't mean certain battles shouldn't be fought," says Bob Fertik, a founder of the ImpeachPAC effort. "If we don't hold a president accountable for lying to start a war, we might as well throw out the Constitution of the United States."
Mr. Fertik, 48 years old, founded a group called Democrats.com in 2000 and began organizing protests from his home computer in New York before the first U.S. bombers hit Baghdad. When the so-called Downing Street Memo emerged in Britain last year, he discerned evidence that the Bush administration had manipulated prewar intelligence.
An organization he helped found, AfterDowningStreet.org, soon assembled an electronic coalition containing 300,000 email addresses. The group hired independent pollster John Zogby to test support for impeachment in June and found that 42% of likely voters supported that step if it were proved that the president lied about prewar intelligence.
By November, the proportion reached 51% -- prompting an impeachment drumbeat from Mr. Fertik and like-minded activists. He cofounded ImpeachPAC, a political action committee dedicated to recruiting and backing candidates who support an impeachment inquiry.
The $60,000 that ImpeachPAC has raised so far isn't much, but has kept the Internet-based organization afloat. David Swanson, the 36-year-old director, works from his home in Virginia.
The movement can point to some small successes. Radio celebrity Garrison Keillor posted an article for the online magazine Salon calling for Mr. Bush's impeachment. Three California cities -- San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Arcata -- have passed resolutions backing impeachment, and municipalities in North Carolina and Vermont are considering such steps.
But the Democratic National Committee, chaired by 2004 campaign firebrand Howard Dean has declined to chime in. A House resolution offered by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan seeking an initial impeachment inquiry has attracted support from just 26 of 201 House Democrats. Even Mr. Conyers, the ranking Judiciary Committee Democrat, allows, "This isn't something we have to do right away."
Democratic strategists remember the fallout Republicans suffered among swing voters in 1998 amid their bid to oust Mr. Clinton. The National Republican Congressional Committee sank $10 million into a last-minute advertising blitz focused on Mr. Clinton's character, only to lose five seats and see House Speaker Newt Gingrich pressured to resign.
A Bush impeachment drive could only move forward if Democrats regained control of the House from the president's party. But even then it would be an uphill fight.
"At most, they could show a mistake in judgment, it seems to me," says the Rev. Robert F. Drinan of the Georgetown University Law Center, a former Democratic House member who backed seeking the impeachment of Richard Nixon in 1974 over Watergate. Michael Gerhardt, an impeachment expert at the University of North Carolina law school, says there could be a "credible basis for an inquiry," but additional facts would have to be established before anyone could "demonstrate an impeachable offense occurred."
Mr. Trupiano, a 45-year-old radio talk-show host, doesn't need convincing. Members of both parties must "exercise oversight," he says, "and once and for all, let's settle some of these discrepancies" about prewar intelligence.
He is seeking the Detroit-area House seat held by Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, a two-term Republican incumbent who hasn't decided if he will seek re-election. He predicts his impeachment stance will become an issue, since Republicans "are going to try to define me as something of a radical."
"From our side of the fence, people are very supportive of the president," says Mr. McCotter's spokesman Bob Jackson. He adds that Mr. McCotter, who won re-election in 2004 with 57% of the vote, hasn't heard complaints about inadequate congressional oversight of the Bush administration.
Mr. Trupiano acknowledges that the economy is the No. 1 concern of the suburban electorate he is courting. And on the stump, he usually avoids using the word "impeachment," opting instead to call for holding the administration "accountable" for its handling of prewar intelligence and its warrantless wiretaps of some Americans' telephone calls as part of the war against terrorism.
"I'm not afraid of the word," says Mr. Trupiano. "But some people are uncomfortable with it."
Write to Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com
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