Ambush Alley

Impassioned Democrats skate dangerously close to the impeachment trap.

The sound is faint, but unmistakable. It is the drumbeat for impeachment, this time emanating from the Democratic Party.

So far, the most insistent voices hail from the party's leftmost fringe. But it might only be a matter of time before the idea enters the party's mainstream, and if it does, it might prove to be a contagion that thwarts the effort to win back a House majority in the 2006 elections.

The case for impeaching President Bush has two lines of argument. One focuses on the contention that he lied in an attempt to take the nation to war in Iraq. The other is tailored to the recent revelation that the president authorized domestic spying by the National Security Agency without court approval. The idea of impeaching Bush isn't exactly new-a handful of House Democratic Caucus liberals have been talking about drafting articles of impeachment since before the invasion of Iraq-but it has gained momentum in recent months as critics have intensified their opposition to the military presence in Iraq and to the administration's conduct in the war on terrorism. There's even a political action committee now, ImpeachPAC, that supports candidates who favor impeaching Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

The recent domestic spying furor offered the first evidence that the notion of impeachment had reached beyond the House and into the Senate, a consequential development since senators operate under different political constraints than House members. In the House, many congressional districts are so mono-partisan that the legislators who represent them are free to traffic in any ideological pursuit that captures their fancy, no matter how capricious. Senators, with their broader constituencies, are usually forced to take a more measured and disciplined approach. So when an idea begins to percolate in the Senate, it has crossed a meaningful threshold.

In December, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., became the first in her chamber to publicly discuss the notion, though technically Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., preceded her by a few days. At a holiday event, Kerry noted that Democrats could make a case for impeachment if they recaptured Congress in 2006, a statement that his office later insisted was only a joke. Regardless of his intent, the Republican National Committee immediately responded with a press release slamming Kerry for "his impeachment advocacy."

The RNC understands the political potency of this issue, and was acting not to shield the president but rather to turn impeachment talk into a weapon it can wield against Democratic congressional candidates in November. Republican campaign operatives see impeachment as the fulsome gift that it is, for they remember the comeuppance their own party received back in 1998-a loss of five seats in the House-after pressing for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

This time, the bet is that the public will view impeachment as a vengeful pursuit; GOP candidates then can charge that the first act of a Democratic-controlled Congress would be to draft articles of impeachment against the president, a message that would dovetail nicely with their theme that Democrats are bankrupt of ideas. As to alleged high crimes and misdemeanors, few Republicans blanch at the prospect of defending a president on trial for overzealously executing the war on terrorism. Indeed, the inevitable comparison to the circumstances that sparked the last impeachment attempt would be especially welcome.

It's an ambush that Democrats have walked into over and over in the Bush era. The liberal wing gets ahead of the rest of the party, stakes a position and then watches incredulously as Republicans harvest the fruits of its fervor. At the moment, most congressional Democrats are avoiding this trap. Whether they continue to do so may determine the outcome of the 2006 elections.

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