Pelosi’s perplexing pledge

Pub date October 31, 2006
WriterJohn 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’s doing everything she can to end Republican control of the House of Representatives. She’s got the right campaign signs in her yard, she’s writing checks and hosting fundraising events, and she’s knocking on doors and making calls in a politically competitive precinct of the battleground state Wisconsin. And she has always 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 may well surf a wave of voter resentment against the Bush administration and Republican misrule into the speaker’s office after the votes are counted Nov. 7, bluntly declared that it would not be the purpose of a Democratic House to restore the rule of law, despite the fact that more than three dozen members of her own caucus are calling for an inquiry into possibly impeachable offenses by the administration, led by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, who is in line to become chair of the Judiciary Committee if the Democrats retake the House.
“Impeachment is off the table,” Pelosi declared.
“And that’s a pledge?” asked CBS’s Lesley Stahl.
“Well, it’s a pledge in the — yes, I mean, it’s a pledge,” Pelosi responded. “Of course it is. It is a waste of time.”
A waste of time?
Not in the eyes of the American people. A majority of those surveyed last fall in a national poll 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.”
It was not entirely surprising that 72 percent of Democrats favored impeachment. What was more interesting was that 56 percent of self-described Independents were ready to hold the president to account, as were 20 percent of Republicans. And 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 and her potential leadership of the House from talk of impeachment?
Is she, like former House speaker Carl Albert, the Democrat representative from Oklahoma’s “Little Dixie” region who cautiously approached the issue of impeaching Richard Nixon, 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 congressional district in the country.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted last February to ask Congress to pursue Bush’s impeachment for leading the country into war in Iraq and undermining civil liberties. And on Nov. 7, San Francisco voters are all but certain to approve Proposition J, urging impeachment. If anything, Pelosi creates political problems at home by being on the wrong side of the impeachment issue, as the spirited challenge she faces this year from proimpeachment Green Krissy Keefer well illustrates.
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 contemporary Democratic Party, I contend that an openness to impeachment is not just good but essential politics for Pelosi and her caucus. If Democrats retake the House on Nov. 7, it will not be because the party proposed a bold agenda and won on it. Pelosi has shied away from making presidential accountability a central theme of the campaign; arguably, she has shied away from central themes in general — except, of course, to promise that Democrats will behave more admirably than Republicans.
Russ Feingold, the senator from Wisconsin who learned a hard lesson about his party’s interest in accountability when he mounted a lonely effort to censure Bush for authorizing illegal spying on telephone conversations, argues that Democrats are doing well this fall in spite of, rather than because of, their cautious approach. “I hope that people don’t think we are winning because of our meekness,” Feingold said. “We are being handed a tremendous gift, but the voters are going to expect us to do something with it.”
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 ahistoric and hyperstrategic politics of a contemporary status quo, which seeks to keep both political parties operating within the narrow boundaries that prevent 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 at the same time 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. When it pulls its biggest punch, the opposition party that covets power is limited in its options, tempered in its approach, and muted in its voice.
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 and the republican endeavor.
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. This is the requirement of politics, not as the game that is played by both major parties but as the essential struggle in which the founders engaged.
If Pelosi hopes to build a new and more vital relationship with the American people, a relationship that runs deeper than any particular issue or individual, she must overcome the irrational fear of presidential accountability in general and impeachment in particular that have so paralyzed Democrats as an opposition force. If Democrats win Nov. 7, it will be because the voters recognize that America needs an opposition party, not to reshuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic that a federal government thrown off course by neoconservative foreign policies and neoliberal economic policies has become, but to turn the ship of state in a new direction.
Pelosi owes it to Salli Martyniak and all the other activists who are pouring themselves and their dollars into making her the next speaker of the House to put impeachment back on the table. Pelosi 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. SFBG
John Nichols, a political writer for the Nation, is the author of The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism (The New Press). He will discuss the book and impeachment Nov. 1 at 12:30 p.m. at Stacey’s and 7 p.m. at the New College Cultural Center.