Impeachment?

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As regular readers of this site know, I’ve always been against the movement to impeach President Bush. I take this position not because he hasn’t done plenty to merit it. My reasons are practical. Minor reasons are that it’s late in the president’s term and that I think impeachment itself is toxic to our political system — though it can be less toxic than the high officials thrown from office. My key reason, though, is that Congress at present can’t even get to the relatively low threshold of votes required to force the president’s hand on Iraq. So to use an analogy which for whatever reason springs readily to my mind at this point in my life, coming out for impeachment under present circumstances is like being so frustrated that you can’t crawl that you come out for walking. In various ways it seems to elevate psychic satisfactions above progress on changing a series of policies that are doing daily and almost vast damage to our country. Find me seventeen Republican senators who are going to convict President Bush in a senate trial.

On balance, this is still my position. But in recent days, for the first time I think, I’ve seen new facts that make me wonder whether the calculus has changed. Or to put it another way, to question whether my position is still justifiable in the face of what’s happening in front of our eyes.

Most of those facts I’m referring to stem from the on-going Gonzales controversy (farce?) and the various running battles over executive privilege. In fact, the exchange I noted yesterday between Gonzales and Sen. Schumer (D-NY) stands out in my mind.

This was the exchange in which Gonzales simply refused to answer one of Sen. Schumer’s questions — didn’t say he didn’t remember, didn’t invoke a privilege, just said, No. Not going to discuss that with you. Move on to the next question.

It’s not that this one incident is a matter of such consequence in and of itself — though I would say it’s pretty consequential. But it captures pretty fully and in one small nugget the terrain the White House is now dragging us on to.

As I explained in that post, testifying before Congress is like testifying in a court of law. The questions aren’t voluntary. You have to answer every one. You can invoke a privilege and the court’s will decide whether the argument has merit. But no one can simply decline to answer a question. And yet this is exactly what Gonzales did.

[ed.note: TPM Reader GK suggests that with a closer viewing of the testimony Gonzales actually does implicitly invoke executive privilege. After several times refusing to answer to the question and having Schumer state his understanding that no privilege has been invoked, Gonzales says that the question “relates to his time at the White House” and thus he won’t answer. This is significant; I won’t deny that. But I don’t think it changes the thrust of what I said in the post. It is too casual, flippant and implicit. I think it amounts to the same thing. They’re really not even going through the motions of invoking the privilege. It’s just, no. To evaluate the ins and outs of this, you can watch the relevant segment here.]

The difference between invoking a flimsy claim of privilege and simply refusing to answer has little immediate practical difference, but it’s constitutional implications are profound.

Though other events in recent months and years have had graver consequences in themselves, I’m not sure I’ve seen a more open, casual or brazen display of the attitude that the body of rules which our whole system is built on just don’t apply to this White House.

Without going into all the specifics, I think we are now moving into a situation where the White House, on various fronts, is openly ignoring the constitution, acting as though not just the law but the constitution itself, which is the fundamental law from which all the statutes gain their force and legitimacy, doesn’t apply to them.

If that is allowed to continue, the defiance will congeal into precedent. And the whole structure of our system of government will be permanently changed.

Whether because of prudence and pragmatism or mere intellectual inertia, I still have the same opinion on the big question: impeachment. But I think we’re moving on to dangerous ground right now, more so than some of us realize. And I’m less sure now under these circumstances that operating by rules of ‘normal politics’ is justifiable or acquits us of our duty to our country.

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