Jamie Raskin’s Fresh Take on Impeachment (watch video here >>)
On Thursday, April 26th State Senator Jamie Raskin hosted a forum at Montgomery College called “Impeachment: Constitutional and Political Questions.” His talk was packed with historical and political information about the impeachment process. The discussion that followed was enthusiastic and spirited, even heated at times, but all who came to learn more left with a good start in the basics and much to think about in the coming months.
Raskin laid out the historical and constitutional foundations of impeachment, with some key quotes from Jefferson, Madison and Lincoln about the dangers to a people of going to war. He explained that one of the reasons that the framers gave so much power, particularly the power to declare war, to the people through their representatives in Congress, was that they wanted to keep the country out of war if at all possible. Historically, heads of state such as kings, emperors and presidents have led the charge to war without personally having to bear its costs, and therefore Congress was granted this power to place a check on that tendency.
Much of the background information Raskin provided on the constitutional framework, the historical precedents, and the long litany of impeachable offenses by the Bush administration was familiar to impeachment activists, and laid a solid foundation for those new to the subject. But Raskin also added some fresh ideas to the debate, and in the coming weeks we will be building on some of his ideas in these pages.
As a constitutional scholar and a progressive who is also an elected official, Raskin was in a unique position to address the political realities facing legislators who, while sympathetic, are inherently cautious about being put on the spot by the impeachment question. Particularly for progressive legislators in swing districts or states, having an impeachment resolution on the agenda is about as welcome as getting a letter bomb in the mail. If you “open it,” whatever you decide will either alienate your base or possibly scare moderates, neither of which you can afford to lose if you want to keep your seat.
Therefore, Raskin argued that it is essential to try to come up with an impeachment “frame” that is positive, and also to be able to present legislators with a well thought out plan for what happens the “day after” an impeachment. Impeachment can’t be a stand-alone issue; it has to be just one component of a comprehensive and positive plan.
“You’ve got to figure out a language of impeachment that makes sense broadly to people and doesn’t scare people to death about a constitutional crisis. In other words, you’ve got to be able to point out that, on the contrary, impeachment is the way out of a constitutional crisis that is already in progress.
“This means that you’ve got to think several moves down the chessboard about what exactly will happen. You’ve got to be able to have, for example, an answer to the question, ‘Do we really want Dick Cheney to be President?'”
“Set forth a really clear scenario of how this is going to help the country. If it’s just a cry from the heart from progressives about, ‘How can you do this to us? Impeach, impeach,’ then that’s what scares people, because then it looks like it’s going to be used as a club to beat up legislators. And then someone like Nancy Pelosi is going to be in a position where she has to say, ‘I can’t get involved in that because I’ve got to save eighteen or twenty new states that we’ve got. These people are in marginal districts and we can’t make them look like they’re crazy.'”
One of the positive frames that Raskin suggested is to argue that the process “isn’t a distraction from the change you are waiting for in 2008, but rather it is the beginning of that change.”
He pointed out that, when the Republican Congress impeached Clinton, they “ran away with the political agenda,” as the entire country was preoccupied with Monica Lewinsky and the Ken Starr investigation. Then-Governor Bush used this to his advantage by repeating again and again the line, “I will never disgrace the Oval Office,” which immediately gave everyone a mental image of the Oval Office and exactly how Clinton had “disgraced” it.
For Democrats, taking hold of the agenda could mean the difference between national healing and national calamity. Raskin suggested that it looks as though Bush is simply trying to “run out the clock” by stonewalling on investigations and refusing to sign bills to end the war. If this strategy of digging in is allowed to continue, then by 2008, should the Democrats win the Presidency, they will inherit a war and a world that may be way beyond repair.
Let’s take Jamie Raskin’s suggestion to heart and try to come up with a plan for change that takes impeachment as its starting point but expands out from there to encompass broader reforms and lasting social progress. This is an invitation and a challenge to use these comment pages to brainstorm together and come up with a positive “language of impeachment.” Comment away!