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Who does impeachment/censure talk benefit?

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi argues that the current impeachment/censure talk is just a pointless distraction from the party’s message for the 2006 elections.
House Minority Leader Pelosi holds a news conference to discuss port security in Washington
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi gave the back of her hand to impeachment and censure talk. Joshua Roberts / Reuters
/ Source:

WASHINGTON — Censure President Bush? Impeach him? Or discreetly kill those ideas to avoid fueling Republican intensity?

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has chosen the “discreetly kill” option, arguing that the current impeachment/censure talk is just a pointless distraction from the party’s message.

“I think that things are going well for the Democrats right now,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday, alluding to recent data showing that a plurality of poll respondents would prefer a Democratic-controlled House.

So why, she implied, should Democrats risk spoiling the mood?

She rebuffed the call by Sen. Russ Feingold, D- Wisc., to censure Bush for ordering National Security Agency surveillance of al Qaida contacts with persons in the United States without seeking warrants from a court.

“I have no idea why anybody would censure someone before they have an investigation,” she said.

Just win in November
As for impeachment, Pelosi asked, “Why doesn't everybody channel their energy into winning the election and understand that elections have ramifications?”

Once the Democrats win the House in November, she promised, they’d seek to enact a job creation program, universal health insurance, more funding for public education, “energy independence, and real security for our country.” 

But House Democratic sources said that if Democrats win the majority in November, Democratic committee chairmen would use their oversight, investigative, and subpoena powers to gather evidence forming the foundation for a range of potential anti-Bush actions, including censure and impeachment.

Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats to win the House majority.

Vermont Rep. Bernie Sanders, now a Senate candidate, is on the same page as Pelosi. In an interview Thursday, Sanders at first said, “I’d rather not” talk about impeachment.

But then he added, “I don’t think it’s going to be an issue” in his Senate race.

“Five towns in my state voted to support impeachment. I thought it would be futile to introduce articles of impeachment. If we are serious about ending the reactionary-type government we have in the White House and the House and the Senate, our energy has to go into the national elections to make sure we end one-party government in the United States.”

GOP cheers Feingold
From the way Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has acted since Feingold unveiled his censure idea last Sunday and from the flurry of delighted e-mails sent out by the Republican National Committee, Republicans appear to be elated that Feingold has put censure on the agenda.

The Wisconsin Democrat worked hard Thursday to convince reporters that his resolution was not a gift to the Republicans.

Feingold insisted that censure is not a diversion from the Democrats’ message, which is essentially that Bush and his administration are incompetent. “What I think some of my colleagues are missing,” he contended, “is that this (censure) actually fits in perfectly with this (Democratic theme of Bush’s alleged incompetence).”

He said Bush and his aides incompetently set up the NSA program by putting it outside the law, thus leading to someone leaking it to the New York Times.

He panned the news media’s coverage of his censure idea, chiding reporters Thursday at the Capitol: “The press decided immediately that this was a bad thing for Democrats and a good thing for conservatives. The facts don’t bear it out. You don’t have the polls to prove it.”

In combative language echoing Howard Dean’s in 2003, he criticized congressional Democrats who he said have “a tendency… to be afraid of taking a strong stand and stick to it.”

Advice to Democratic candidates
Feingold also sought to boost the morale of Democrats running this November (a group he isn't part of): “Some have said to me that this will be a difficult issue for some of our candidates who are running this November. To them I say; ‘Say what you believe. If you think it is appropriate to censure the president, say so. If not, say not.” 

Instead of favoring the Democrats or the Republicans, impeachment and censure might be motivating issues for loyalists in both parties and could drive up fundraising and turnout on both sides in November.

Republican strategist Patrick Davis said the chief effect might be on fund raising.

“Censuring a sitting Commander-in-Chief in war time while we have troops in the field in harm’s way will motivate patriotic Americans of all stripes to reject this political trick outright,” Davis said. “Even the other ultra-liberal Democrat, Tom Daschle, who is vying to fill the gap on the left which used to be occupied by Paul Wellstone is not joining the call for censure. It is, however, a fruitful line for direct mail fundraising copy that both sides will use to raise money with their most ardent supporters.”

But one Democrat who e-mailed me this week about Feingold said some party loyalists will stay home on Election Day if the Democrats don’t get behind Feingold’s censure crusade.

“The Democratic base is getting sick and tired of the whining, wimpy Democratic leadership at the national level,” said Darla Wilshire of Altoona, Pa. “We are the voters who will stay home in November, not the Republicans. Why? Because the party can't stand up for its principles, like those demonstrated by Russ Feingold.”

Cities and towns where impeachment is hot ...
If one looks at the cities where impeach-Bush resolutions have been approved by local elected councils or boards, a push by congressional Democrats on impeachment or censure is most likely to boost Democratic voter turnout in the places where the party is already dominant:

  • San Francisco's Board of Supervisors voted to support Bush’s impeachment. This is Pelosi’s own district, which she won in 2004 with more than 80 percent of the vote.
  • Santa Cruz, Calif., has also OK’s an impeachment motion. This city is in the congressional district of Rep. Sam Farr, a six-term Democrat who won re-election to his seat with more than two-thirds of the vote.
  • Another pro-impeachment city, Arcata, Calif., is in the district of Democrat Mike Thompson, like Farr, re-elected with more than two-thirds of the vote.

If, due to fervor over impeachment or censure of Bush, Democrats can increase their voter turnout by ten percent in San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Arcata, it will make no difference to control of the House or Senate.

Pelosi, Farr and Thompson are coming back for another term in the House in 2007, impeachment or no impeachment.

... and where it's not
But the Democrats Pelosi needs, if she hopes to go from being the leader of a frustrated minority to the triumphant Speaker of the House, are those in more conservative Midwestern and Southern districts carried by Bush in the 2004 election -- places such as Georgia’s Third congressional district, represented by conservative Democrat Rep. Jim Marshall.

Marshall, whose district Bush carried with 56 percent of the vote, said Thursday, “Many people in my district are concerned about the NSA spying and I receive regularly letters suggesting that I call for the president’s impeachment. And I regularly respond that I know of nothing the administration has done that warrants impeachment proceedings."

He said calls for investigating this and investigating that "tend to undermine our resolve with regard to what I consider the principle issue we as a country have to deal with right now, and that’s Iraq.”

He said the NSA surveillance should be brought under supervision of the courts, but he also said that if the Democrats win the House in November, “what I expect is that the House of Representatives is going to stay firmly behind the war effort.”