Sunday, September 17, 2006

Democrats and torture

To echo Yglesias, the Democrats’ recent political tactic on the military tribunals bill may provide short-term benefits but long-term costs to the party. To recap, Bush is pushing for a bill to bring terrorism suspects to trial that would change the way the U.S. applies the applicable provision of the Geneva Conventions to allow U.S. government officials to continue using the interrogation techniques (waterboarding, extreme sleep deprivation, Soviet-style cold cells) they have been using in recent years. After the Supreme Court's decision in Hamdan, the DOJ stopped providing legal cover for the CIA's interrogation techniques. Three Republican senators--McCain, Warner, and Graham--have rejected Bush's proposal, and Colin Powell recently expressed his support for their position.

As far as I can tell, the Democrats as a national party and as individual presidential contenders for 2008 are getting owned by McCain right now on the military tribunals issue. Public opinion has been turning against Bush almost since the 2004 election, but Democratic politicians have been clubbed so many times with national security as a political issue they want to talk about it as little as possible before the election. So they are letting Senators Warner, McCain, and Graham stand up to the President on this (or else they the only ones the media is giving much coverage to), thus ceding to McCain, possibly the highest-visibility politician in the country right now, all the political momentum which will come from Bush’s defeat on this.

McCain can see farther than most and knows that by the time 2008 rolls around, whoever can run most convincingly as not-Bush will be best positioned to win. By taking center stage here, he gets his Bush-battling credentials and strengthens his reputation on national security at the same time. Meanwhile the Democrats are MIA. The point is not that Republicans are divided; we knew that already, although it hadn’t been quite this publicly clear before. The point is who will absorb the political influence that is bleeding from Bush with each passing day. Who will pick up the pieces of the failures of the past four years and build a way forward that addresses Americans’ security concerns without selling our collective soul.

Maybe the Democrats will have to lose another election or three before they get a clue about how this works. They perpetually seem to believe every election will be just like the last one. "We tried to stand up to the administration on foreign policy and that lost us the Senate in 2002 and the presidency in 2004." So they decide not to take a stand against the president’s proposal to change U.S. law to officially sanction torture and instead let prominent Republican hawks do it, one of whom happens to be the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2008. There's a groundswell of public opinion against Bush and his failed foreign policy, and Democratic politicians are doing everything they can to disassociate themselves from this movement at the critical moment that the post-Bush political order is being constructed.

An opposing argument might be that the Democratic leadership doesn’t have the military credentials of the Republican Three (+ Powell) and that letting the Republicans fight it out among themselves lets the Democrats avoid any political damage they might sustain if they got involved. But why couldn’t Kerry, Wes Clark, or Hillary Clinton draw on their foreign policy experience on this issue? Or you could argue that it’s more important to not do anything to dampen the Democrats’ recent advantage in the polls just before the election, and then start swinging after the Democrats take the House in November. But the White House has set the agenda, and this debate is happening now, and the Democrats avoid it at their peril.

Update: Via Ezra Klein, John McIntyre at RealClearPolitics points out that the Republican base does not want bipartisanship from its leaders right now, and that by opposing the President on this high-profile issue, McCain is busy destroying his chances at obtaining the Republican nomination in 2008. It doesn't matter how much good it will do him in the general election if he never makes it past the primary. This sounds plausible--if the Republican base hasn't deserted Bush by now, it's hard to imagine under what circumstances they would do so. Unless, as a result of Democratic congressional investigations if the Democrats regain the House or an ill-advised invasion of Iran, Bush ventures into NixonLand and McCain steps forward as the man to salvage the hopes of the party. Although it's hard to envision either of those occurrences making the base like Bush less ...

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