It is often said that American politics today are more acrimonious than they have ever been before. Certainly, from the standpoint of a contemporary observer, they seem to be. The hatred that many Democrats feel toward George W. Bush is truly searing -- quite the equal, it is only fair to say, of the hatred many Republicans felt for Bill Clinton.
Still, when one reflects on the things the politicians of earlier decades said about each other, and even did to each other, it is possible to argue that what is going on today is only par for the course. Lincoln was denounced during the campaign of 1860 as "the Illinois baboon." Even earlier, John Quincy Adams had described Thomas Jefferson, elegantly but viciously, as "an affront to the moral order of the universe." Nor should we forget that, amid the emotions roused in the middle of the 19th century by the dispute over slavery, a Southern Congressman walked into the Senate chamber and bludgeoned Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner with a cane so thoroughly that Sumner never fully recovered from the beating. Verily, as Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley remarked to his friend Hennessey, "Politics ain't beanbag."
And yet there are signs that American politics are not only arguably uglier than they have ever been before, but that things are about to get even worse.
Specifically, it now seems clear that, if the Democrats capture the House of Representatives next year, a number of them fully intend to launch impeachment proceedings against President Bush -- whose term, be it remembered, won't expire until January 2009. The grounds are not yet entirely clear, but the Democrats' recent fascination with acts of his (e.g., tapping the overseas phone calls of American citizens without a warrant) that allegedly constitute violations of law, appear aimed squarely in that direction. And various individual Democrats, some of whom (like Sen. John Kerry) hint that they were only joking, and some of whom don't, have said openly that, if the Democrats capture the House, a motion to impeach Bush will be on the agenda.
Many Democratic partisans will, of course, regard this as tit-for-tat: a condign repayment for the Republicans' impeachment of Clinton. But no two impeachments are alike, and there are interesting differences between the cases of Clinton and Bush. Clinton had undeniably committed two felonies -- perjury and obstruction of justice -- in his desperate efforts to conceal his sexual misconduct. But his supporters argued that these offenses didn't rise to the level of the "high Crimes and Misdemeanors" for which the Constitution authorizes impeachment. In the case of Bush, the misdeeds of which he is accused seem more clearly of this type; it is whether they were indeed crimes, and whether Bush in fact committed them, that is disputed.
Bear in mind that, while it is the House that has the power to impeach a president, it is the Senate that would try him, and that could (by a two-thirds vote) remove him from office. Thus Clinton was impeached by the House, and tried by the Senate, but the vote to remove him failed when only 50 senators, instead of 67, voted to do so. In practical terms, therefore, much will depend on whether the Democrats capture not only the House but the Senate.
But even if they don't, and have to settle for control of the House, you can bet that the bitterness against Bush is sufficient to guarantee a motion to impeach. It would take only one Democrat to introduce such a motion, and there will surely be dozens eager to do so. Whether they can muster enough support to pass it is another question, which probably depends on the good judgment of the House Democratic leadership. That, however, would be led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, (D-Calif.), who might well feel that a successful impeachment, even if followed by an unsuccessful trial in the Senate, would go far to restore the pre-Clinton balance between the parties.
So American voters, casting their ballots next November, will have to decide, among other things, just how much uglier they want American politics to get.