Reflections on George McGovern's Call for Impeachment

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET
  • John Seery Professor of Politics at Pomona College

In Sunday's Washington Post, George McGovern, at 85-years-old, sternly recommends that Congress ought to impeach Bush and Cheney ("Why I Believe Bush Must Go: Nixon Was Bad. These Guys Are Worse"), even though much prevailing sentiment runs decidedly against it. He explains that after the 1972 presidential election, he, too, was of a mind to refrain from calling for Nixon's impeachment, namely out of a concern that his reproach would be perceived as a vendetta. He regrets that today, members of Congress are making similar calculations and accommodations and that impeachment is, therefore, highly unlikely.

Of course, there seems to be little bipartisan support for impeachment. The political scene is marked by narrow and sometimes superficial partisanship, especially among Republicans, and a lack of courage and statesmanship on the part of too many Democratic politicians. So the chances of a bipartisan impeachment and conviction are not promising.

Yet the facts won't simply go away, McGovern reminds us, even as members of Congress and mainstream media pundits try to ignore them and to deny the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from them: Bush and Cheney "are clearly guilty of numerous impeachable offenses." They have repeatedly violated the Constitution. They have willfully broken laws. They have lied to the American people. They have almost certainly committed "high crimes and misdemeanors." The consequences of their actions have been devastating and will be long-lasting. They should be investigated, impeached, and tried. Period.

My sense is that McGovern already knows that the purveyors of Conventional Beltway Wisdom will roll their eyeballs dismissively at his wayward op-ed. No one's in the mood for impeachment: It would be such a distraction, it would be such a downer, it could backfire, Democrats are on a roll, Republicans would never go along with it, we're all basking in Obamuckabee calls for transcending nastiness, let's move forward, it's the campaign season, hope hope hope, change change change, blah blah blah.

I don't think McGovern really expects it to happen. He's writing, instead, for the historical record. "How could a once-admired, great nation fall into such a quagmire of killing, immorality, and lawlessness?"

Put it this way: If Congress doesn't impeach Bush and Cheney, then that section of the Constitution -- Article II, Section 4 -- will be rendered hereafter, for all practical purposes, null and void. No U.S. president and vice president will ever need to worry about impeachment--about being constrained by the rule of law--since the precedent for permissible lawlessness, recklessness, and incompetence will have been set so very low.

What presidential malfeasance could ever be worse? Illegal war. Torture. Plame-gate treason. Abu Ghraib. Katrina. Guantanamo. Illegal surveillance. Halliburton no-bid contracts. Blackwater. K-Street corruption. Enron. Politicizing the Justice Department. Signing statements. And so on. Hard to imagine a U.S. administration sinking much lower.

According to the U.S. Constitution, members of Congress "shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation to support this constitution." That's their stipulated job. If members of the 110th Congress fail to make a concerted effort in the upcoming year to uphold Article II, Section 4 of that same document, they are liable to go down in history as abdicating their own constitutional duties.

Beware those presidential candidates, furthermore, who claim to be able to lead us into a brave new future and yet cannot currently muster the political will to uphold the Constitution by calling publicly for and supporting impeachment. Their silence isn't strategic, it's complicity.

In my scholarly field of political theory, radical critiques of constitutional democracy (whether Marxist, Foucauldian, feminist, Freudian, or post-structuralist) commonly contend that the rule of law is a sham, a pretense, a mere cover for underlying or overarching power interests. It sure looks as if the Bush-Cheney regime, along with a compliant Congress, is confirming such criticism. Thank goodness -- that is, if you believe in lawful governance -- George McGovern is providing at least one principled voice to the contrary.

But why aren't more folks insisting -- nay, demanding -- that our elected officials abide by the rule of law? What could be more basic? McGovern's lonely invocation of Jefferson at this time -- "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just" -- gives me the chills.