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.