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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 24, 2006

No one would benefit from censuring Bush

By Carl P. Leubsdorf

It's a close call whether Sen. Russell Feingold's proposal to censure President Bush has attracted more enthusiasm from the president's liberal Democratic critics or his Republican defenders.

But this much is clear: It's a bad idea that can only increase the negative tone of American politics and distract all concerned from the vital international and domestic issues the country faces.

For Feingold, the proposal to censure Bush for authorizing domestic surveillance without court approval of those with suspected terrorist ties is a political gambit that, at least in the short run, is a no-lose proposition.

It gave the Wisconsin senator substantial publicity for his prospective presidential bid and attracted enthusiasm among the liberal activists and Iraq war critics on whom he'll rely in any 2008 challenge to Sen. Hillary Clinton.

But his maneuver has put fellow Democrats into a quandary, evident in the way that many have sidestepped his proposal.

With Bush on the political defensive over Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the Dubai ports deal, this would seem like the wrong time to change the subject and personalize criticism of him.

Besides, the surveillance program has substantial support, prompting Bush to say this week that he hasn't seen any Democrats wanting to scrap it.

But Democratic leaders recognize the strong anti-Bush feelings among party "netroots," the grass-roots activists whose Internet fundraising and organizing have made them political players.

Democratic discomfort brought GOP delight. That was clear in the zest with which Republicans claimed the senator's statement proves that the only Democratic agenda is to attack Bush, a stance helped by the party's failure to put forth a positive 2006 campaign agenda.

"New Dem Agendas Moving Forward," declared a release by the Republican National Committee, noting Feingold accused the president of an "impeachable offense" and adding that "Some Dems in the House Are Already Moving Toward Impeachment."

It cited a resolution introduced last week by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, an outspoken liberal in line to head the House Judiciary Committee in a Democratic House. He would create a special panel to probe and make recommendations on impeachment as a result of what he said was Bush's misuse of intelligence data in launching the war against Iraq.

A new Newsweek poll shows 42 percent support censure of Bush, but only 27 percent say Congress should impeach him.

So any impeachment move aimed at Bush, like the 1998 one against Bill Clinton, might play poorly with the public.

More important, it's probably the last thing this politically divided nation needs. And it would almost certainly fail since, even with a strong showing in November, the Democrats won't win enough Senate seats to convict the Republican president, even if they wanted to.

Indeed, a censure or impeachment effort would look like delayed revenge for the way Republicans took advantage of President Clinton's false testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky to spend months in a futile attempt to force him from office.

Even many Republicans didn't think in retrospect that was wise.

Impeachment and even censure ought to be reserved for the most serious offenses. In the mid-1950s, the Senate censured the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy for dishonoring the Senate with unsupported, headline-grabbing attacks on alleged Communist sympathizers.

In the case of President Nixon, who would have been impeached and convicted if he hadn't resigned, congressional Democrats proceeded with caution until it became clear he had misused the CIA and FBI to cover up his and his top aides' involvement in the Watergate break-in.

Even today, some Republicans believe his impeachment was a Democratic vendetta, though the public disagrees. But the 1868 impeachment of President Andrew Johnson was mainly political, as was Clinton's.

Yet another impeachment effort aimed at yet another president would make this beacon of democracy seem no better than the Philippines, which has seen repeated efforts some successful to oust elected presidents in recent years.

However much they disapprove of Bush, Democrats should resist the siren call of the Feingolds, the Conyerses and the netroots and concentrate on devising alternatives to his policies.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Reach him at cleubsdorf@dallasnews.com.