Pollster.com’s Professor Franklin’s latest update on Presidential approval is pretty astounding. Since some time in late April, approval has been in freefall, and where it will land, no one can know.
The lowest approval ever recorded was 23%, seven months before President Nixon resigned in a scandal over illegal wiretapping, a lost war, improperly fired federal prosecutors, and the abuse of executive privilege to cover it all up.
There’s been a lot of talk about the wisdom of pursuing impeachment against Bush and Cheney, and the parallel with the eminently impeachable Nixon certainly seems to bolster the case for it. If we set aside the question of what, exactly, constitutes a “high crime” or “misdemeanor,” a strong case can be made that something ought to be done when only a quarter of the public approves of the President’s actions. A better case for impeachment applies to the VP, given his lower approval, closer ties to the illegal outing of a secret agent (the prosecutor clearly felt that Libby’s lies were meant to protect Cheney, but couldn’t pursue that line of evidence because of the lies), and general indifference to the place of the Vice President in American government.
The pragmatic part of my brain would like to see Bush and Cheney cowed by their low approval, and for Congress to recognize that they will have to work around two obstructionists for the next 18 months. Presidential pronouncements should be taken to represent the opinion of at most two men with no political support. Tying up the only moderately functional branch of government with an impeachment process that probably would fail, and which would only give us a few months of a competent president if it succeeded, seems wasteful.
On the other hand, this administration has shredded the law and the Constitution in dramatic and disturbing ways. Letting those actions stand without some official Congressional censure will allow future presidents to point to this administration and say “look, they did it and neither the courts nor Congress objected.” If the House begins the impeachment process, that would draw a line in the sand. If impeachment fails, however, might it give some future authoritarian president an excuse (“Sure, Congress started impeachment hearings, but they didn’t impeach, so it must be OK”).
Furthermore, if Bush gets impeached, we’ll have to deal with President Cheney. Without having to work through Bush, Cheney’s dastardly efficiency would increase dramatically, with dangerous consequences. If Cheney gets impeached first, Bush can name a new VP, who will instantly become the front-runner for the 2008 Republican nomination, with potentially disastrous consequences (plus Congress will get tied in knots during the confirmation process). Since Speaker Pelosi would become President if both Bush and Cheney were impeached, I think it’s fair to think that there would be both political and principled opposition to simultaneously impeaching both men.
Congress will do what it will do about impeachment, and chances are, it will do nothing. That doesn’t mean it should do nothing with this data on Presidential approval. The President clearly has lost the American public, and if Congress wants to win that disaffected public over, all it has to do is take charge. That might mean some fights with the White House, but it also means finding policies that 67 Senators and 290 House members agree with, no matter what the President thinks. The occupation of Iraq is an issue where such a consensus is probably possible. If Congress passes a law ending our disastrous policies in Iraq, the public will back it, and will back impeachment if the President refuses to adhere to the law.