Sunday, September 24, 2006

A word on torture, McCain, and the failure of the Democrats

By Heraclitus

I understand that people are irritated with how quickly McCain "compromised" with Bush on the question of torture, when his whole shtick had seemed to be that there could be no compromise on this issue. I see their point. But I'd like to defend McCain for a moment. I think everyone agrees that McCain is planning to run for president in 08. He learned in 2000 that you cannot win the GOP nomination without the support of the base (or, more accurately, if you're running against scum like Bush-Rove). In the present case, his "rebellion" only hurt the party. Yes, it may have allowed some Republicans in Congress to gain some much-needed distance from Bush, but note that the rebellion was led by three Senators who are not running for re-election, and who would be assured of victory if they were. Perhaps more to the point, it's not at all clear that Bush's stance on torture is unpopular with Americans. The issue has been so poorly and so rarely reported that it's hard to know what people think, but there is evidence that a majority supports torture, at least in some circumstances. The Republicans need distance from Bush on the economy and Iraq, not "keeping America safe" and such. A longer, more bitter struggle between McCain and Bush would have really hurt the GOP, and the base, not to mention the elites and the donors, would have remembered that in 08.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not happy about Bush's--and torture's--quasi-victory here. But why was it solely McCain's responsibility to break Bush on this? What about, I don't know, the Democrats? I think Greg Saunders is right: "Now with every poll supporting the Democrats and the Republicans on the ropes, these cowards are still afraid to throw the first punch." I assume that the Democrats are doing what they did in 2004, when Iraq started to descend into chaos and Bush's presidency looked like it was coming apart at the seems. Then, as now, they did nothing, presumably in the belief that they didn't have to, that Bush would just self-destruct. They didn't have to stand for anything, they didn't have to have any ideas, they didn't have to have any purpose at all. They, and Kerry in particular, could just run as not-Bush. And we saw how that turned out.

Remember Clinton beating Bush because he had "the vision thing." Remember Bush beating Kerry, because people looked at them both and thought, "Bush is incompetent, but at least he has some principles and we know what he'll do." Again, I'm not happy about this--I think Bush's second term has been an even more unmitigated disaster than his first. But if Kerry and the others Democrats were too cowardly to articulate a set of principles and run on them, they got what they deserved. Politics should be about competing visions, beliefs and priorities, not about sneaking into office after winning by default. If the Democrats' position on torture is unpopular, it's up to them to make it popular, by arguing their case publicly. That's what political leaders do, and this is just more proof that there isn't a single one in the ranks of the Democrats' leadership. If you're still not persuaded, all you have to do is look at how much hope and responsibility is being thrust upon Barak Obama, who hasn't even been a Senator for two years yet. So, by all means, criticize McCain for caving. But also note that he did more than the entire Democratic Party combined to make Bush accountable and to end the practice of torture by the American government.

He also did more than the entire press corps combined, with the very occasional exception. As Dan Froomkin writes in The Washington Post:

Members of the traditional press were paying scant attention to the issue of state-sanctioned torture until a rift appeared within the Republican party itself. That, in Washington, qualifies as high drama.

And now that the rift has been papered over, most reporters' tendencies will be to cover the issue mostly from the angle of its effectiveness as a political cudgel in the mid-term elections.

But the American public deserves to hear a full and open debate on this important moral issue. And if Congress won't host it, then it's up to the Fourth Estate to rise to the challenge.

It is indeed up to them, but I for one am not holding my breath.

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