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By Jay Cost

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The Politics of Impeachment

I read with rapt attention Dan Gerstein's column in this week's Politico. It discussed the politics of impeachment. Specifically, it reviewed the desire of the left to impeach President Bush as a way to end the war. Gerstein notes the anger of the Democratic base at the congressional caucus' inability to end the war, and then explains:

That helps explain how impeachment--the true nuclear option--rather suddenly made the quantum leap from the mutterings of the Mother Jones set to the latest rallying cry of the party's increasingly powerful Netroots bloc. The progressive community increasingly does not trust the national party leadership to take on the president, so more and more of them are coming to believe that the only option is to take him out.

Gerstein clearly thinks it is a bad idea, and he intends in his next column to review the case against it, which should not be hard. The biggest problem with impeachment is that the Democrats will never land a conviction. There is no way they could acquire the 2/3rds majority in the Senate. So, impeachment will not end the war. Another major problem - I know that it looks to many Democrats that the President has committed "high crimes and misdemeanors," but many Americans would see the case against Bush as being quite weak. The last impeachment looked to many voters to be a partisan side-show, and it did according damage to the Republican Party. This might do the same to the Democrats. Finally, the fact that impeachment would move from "off the table" to "on the table" without any good reasons would make it look all the more like a political stunt, and therefore an attempted coup (because, after all, to end the war - Cheney would have to be impeached, too).

To be frank, I think the Democratic base is acting irrationally. Before my Democratic readers get up-in-arms over this comment, let me say that I mean it in a narrow sense of the word. Impeachment is an irrational strategy. "Irrational" can apply to people, and therefore whether they are endowed with reason - but it can also apply to strategies, and therefore whether they will achieve the goals the strategist wishes them to achieve. I mean "irrational" in the latter sense of the word. As in, impeachment is a manifestly irrational strategy in pursuit of the goal of ending the war. It will not accomplish the goals the Democratic base wishes to accomplish. Indeed, it would set those goals further back.

The anger of the Democratic base is neither surprising nor all that unique. They are not the first, nor the last, passionate group of active citizens to have had their desires quashed by what amounts to the super-majority requirement of our system. Unfortunately for the left, the Iraq War is the status quo - and our system's status quo bias is very, very great. This is why the Democrats have not been successful in stopping the war. They need about 30% of the Republican caucus to support them - and they simply do not have it.

How, then, did the base come to believe that the Democrats could end the war? The answer is obvious - this is what the Democrats told them! This is why the anger is neither surprising nor unique. Strategic politicians looking for votes promised them more than they could deliver. This seems to be an endemic feature of our politics: politicians over-sell, voters are left disappointed and frustrated. Next week, I will investigate it in more detail.

-Jay Cost