D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e    April 2006


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Watch on the Potomac

What's Wrong with the Democrats?

New Mexico Dems want impeachment; their leaders want to make nice.

By David A. Fryxell


On Saturday, March 18, some 1,200 Democrats from across New Mexico gathered for the party's pre-primary nominating convention. In addition to weeding through the contenders for ballot slots, the delegates found time to call for the impeachment of the president of the United States.

Gov. Bill Richardson, who scooted off from the convention to boost his own 2008 presidential chances in New Hampshire, just as promptly distanced himself from that resolution: "The governor is opposed to this call for impeachment and feels that it is premature," said Pahl Shipley, a Richardson spokesman. "Nonetheless, he recognizes the mounting frustration with the policies of the Bush administration." Attorney General Patricia Madrid, who's trying to take Rep. Heather Wilson's congressional seat in one of the key races Democrats nationally are pinning their hopes on, was equally cool to the resolution. A spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat running for re-election, said the senator supports an inquiry into President George W. Bush's domestic wiretapping, but that she wasn't aware of anyone in Washington, including Bingaman, who supported impeachment.

Another 2008 Democratic contender, Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, was almost simultaneously proposing a censure of the president, however. The response from most national Democratic leaders was pretty much the same as in New Mexico: They backed away from Feingold as though he'd left dog poop on the Capitol steps.

Why is the Democratic Party establishment being so shy about going after a president with one of the lowest approval ratings in history, a commander-in-chief who's staked his presidency on a war in Iraq that majorities of Americans now think was a mistake that's become a quagmire? (The latest Harris poll finds 68% of Americans say Bush is doing a "poor" or "only fair" job of running the war.) Imagine what the Republicans, who know blood in the water when they see it, would have done to President Bill Clinton in such a situation.

It's hard now even to remember the details of the Monica Lewinsky scandal—the non-lurid ones, that is, that somehow qualified as impeachable "high crimes and misdemeanors." But, however you feel about President Bush or the necessity of his actions in the war on terror, it's inarguable that he's offered a much clearer target to his enemies: When asked by The New Republic whether Bush's domestic surveillance program was illegal, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley recently replied in the affirmative, adding, "It's not a close question. Federal law is clear." Did Bush lie about it, much as Clinton lied about the Lewinksy affair? Absolutely. (On April 20, 2004, Bush declared, "When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so"—even as he was, The New Republic notes, "doing exactly the opposite.")

Should Bush be impeached, or at least censured? Should Clinton have been impeached? The answers will largely depend on where your partisan opinions lie. The point is that the GOP went after Clinton—whose approval ratings at the time were far higher than Bush's now—like sharks after chum. Did it backfire on them politically? They've won (arguably, Democrats will say) the last two presidential elections and continue to control both houses of Congress.

But the Democrats, at least those with official positions, seem strangely disinclined to follow this GOP blueprint and capitalize on Bush's current woes. One key difference, of course, is that with Republicans in control of Congress, neither a censure nor an impeachment resolution has any chance of passage. Does that matter? Did anyone seriously think Clinton would actually be removed from office over Monicagate?

Why are the Democrats being so shy? As one pundit put it, "A lot of Democrats I talk to—" that would be inside-the-Beltway Democrats, not those at last month's New Mexico convention "—don't seem to want any part of [censure]. They think it would hurt them this fall." Impeachment is even scarier, which is no doubt why the New Mexico party leaders initially tabled that resolution as soon as it was introduced.

In fact, however, a Newsweek poll found 42% of Americans back the idea of censure (more, The New Republic points out, than back Bush's Social Security plan). And two-thirds of the New Mexico Democrats at last month's convention voted to put the impeachment resolution to a vote; it passed easily.

Democratic officials here and nationwide may be about to learn that the grassroots of their party are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore. As columnist Molly Ivins wrote in a piece titled "Enough of the DC Dems," "Every Democrat I talk to is appalled at the sheer gutlessness and spinelessness of the Democratic performance. The party is still cringing at the thought of being called, ooh-ooh, 'unpatriotic' by a bunch of rightwingers."

It's not just a few outspoken progressives like Ivins who are down on the DC Democrats: Negative poll ratings for the Democrats in Congress are actually worse than those for the GOP or for President Bush. So why do the "DC Dems" continue to think an "offend nobody" strategy is smart? Who's left for them to offend, when their negatives are at 70 percent? Two-thirds of voters, in a new NBC News-Wall Street Journal, say they would support a congressional candidate who calls for "a major change in direction." But Democrats seem loathe to offer it.

This grassroots rebellion—also seen in the blogging community, where Feingold is far and away the favorite for 2008—may spell trouble for Sen. Hillary Clinton, whom the media and Democratic establishment have all but anointed as the 2008 nominee. "I have had it. . . with the DC Democrats," Ivins writes, "had it with every calculating, equivocating, triangulating, straddling, hair-splitting son of a bitch up there, and that includes Hillary Rodham Clinton. . . . I can't see a damn soul in DC except Russ Feingold who is even worth considering for president. . . . This is not a time for a candidate who will offend no one; it is time for a candidate who takes clear stands and kicks ass."

The burning motivation for most Democratic activists, of course, is opposition to the Iraq war. But even though a majority of Americans say they want US troops out of Iraq—even as President Bush warns the troops will still be there in 2009—few Democratic leaders join Feingold and Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania in calling for an exit timetable. Where's the political downside? In that NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, 50 percent said they'd be "more likely" to vote for a candidate who favors withdrawing all troops within 12 months, versus 35 percent saying "less likely."

And yet you couldn't slide a paper ballot between the party's 2008 frontrunner, Sen. Clinton, and GOP frontrunner Sen. John McCain of Arizona on the issue of Iraq, leaving the very real possibility that voters who want out will have no place to go in 2008.

It's significant, then, that even as Richardson was backing away—all the way to New Hampshire—from the impeachment resolution, once he got to the first primary state he came out in favor of withdrawing US troops from Iraq by next year. Although not exactly on the antiwar fringe, that does position Richardson among the handful of 2008 contenders who've called for some sort of exit sooner rather than later: besides Feingold, 2004 contender Wesley Clark (another blogger fave) and 2004 vice-presidential nominee John Edwards, who's called his vote for the Iraq war resolution "a mistake" (a sharp contrast to 2004 presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry's inscrutable "for it but against it" position during the campaign).

If the race for the 2008 Democratic nomination does boil down to Hillary Clinton vs. the anti-Hillary, as most pundits expect, Richardson's smart enough to realize that the "anti-" candidate will need the activist element that's fervently against the war.

In the meantime, if you're a supporter of the war and of President Bush, you can take comfort in the ongoing evidence that the Democrats, floundering and message-less despite the softballs served up by Bush and his Abramoff-tainted allies on the Hill, have learned nothing from the GOP strategy manual. New Mexico Democrats—like the activists nationwide the party will need in November to take back Congress—want raw meat. But their leaders keep serving up Jell-O.

Desert Exposure editor David A. Fryxell is a "political junkie" who has worked in campaigns for both parties and for independents.

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