Two years ago in American Dynasty, I suggested that George W. Bush, if re-elected, might well face impeachment in his second term as the debacle in Iraq deepened. This has come to pass, and not surprisingly because American presidents since World War Two -- Truman over Korea and Johnson and Nixon over Vietnam -- faced similar rumblings when wars went poorly or were clearly mismanaged.
Still, the talk did not become action, and even Nixon's 1974 impeachment did not extend to the Vietnam war. The odds, then, are that the talk of impeaching George W. Bush over mismanagement in Iraq or national security excesses at home won't go anywhere either. The Democrats in Congress are right to suspect that such a move could open a political version of Pandora's box.
Back in 1998, the GOP-led crusade to impeach Bill Clinton certainly did. The clumsiness of the GOP effort also wound up focusing attention on the moral hypocrisy of certain Republican leaders in the House of Representatives whose peccadilloes were on a par with Clinton's. It is all too easy to imagine a clumsy Democratic-led impeachment efflort creating a backlash in which that party's own war and national security-related skills become a GOP target and wind up distracting the public from George W. Bush's own incompetence.
This raises another critical point. For all that opinion polls show that incompetence is the word voters most often associate with Bush, incompetence is not a high crime or misdemeanor of the sort generally considered grounds for impeachment. Should Bush become incompetent for causes not existing at the time of his election -- a series of strokes damaging his memory, for example -- that would probably be covered under the disability provisions of the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But that is not the kind of incompetence perceived in the current polls.
The 25th Amendment might also apply if a president became religiously delusional -- for example, insisting on going to church two or three times a day to make certain God kept providing him with timely advice and instructions. Indeed, George W. Bush may have some simiular delusions -- in 1999 he told groups of preachers that God wanted him to run for president, and similar comments, mostly hearsay, have been reported from time to time since then. In 2004, the Lancaster New Era reported that Bush spoke as follows to a private gathering of Pennsylvania Amish: " I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job."
That comment certainly raises major questions. But even if they were overt and deemed potential subject matter for the 25th Amendment, under present law the issue would have to be raised by a majority of Bush's Cabinet members. That would be unlikely, and with the alleged behavior not entirely established, even the press has not gotten very interested.
Which bring me to the remedy sought a few years back when Californians got tired of their governor, Gray Davis. Under state law, they were able to mount a recall effort that took away his job. To set up a simular federal mechanism, a constitutional amendment would seem necessary, and that could not happen overnight. Still, with impeachment losing credibility as a constitutiional remedy, the possibilility of having an "incompetent" president with a 35% job approval rating in office for almost three more years represents enough of a threat to an unhappy and beleaguered United States that a wide-ranging debate is in order.