Democrats were once inflamed by Bush policies in these areas yet now are largely indifferent. What explains that?
President Barack Obama speaks at Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (Credit: AP)
During an interview with The Hill in his West Wing office, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs blasted liberal naysayers . . . . “I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested,” Gibbs said. “I mean, it’s crazy.”
CANDY CROWLEY: You sound as though you believe President Obama is doing a good job on the terrorism front.
HAYDEN: There are some things that I disagree with, and I’ve disagreed with publicly.
CROWLEY: Such as?
HAYDEN: Making the CIA Office of Legal Counsel interrogation memos public, stopping the CIA interrogation program and not really replacing it with any other interrogation program, even to this date.
But, by and large, there’s been a powerful continuity between the 43rd and the 44th president, and I think that simply reflects the reality that both President Obama and President Bush faced in terms of the threat and the tools that are available to them.
On Terrorism and civil liberties issues, Michael Hayden resides very close to the furthest-right pole even when compared to other Bush/Cheney officials. He ran the NSA when Bush’s illegal eavesdropping program was implemented (and was one of its principal defenders), and just last month defended Bush’s torture program in a debate alongside torture apologist Marc Thiessen. Indeed, in 2006, then-Senator Obama voted against Hayden’s confirmation as CIA Director, citing his responsibility for the illegal NSA program.
Yet here is Hayden praising Obama’s Terrorism and national security policies on the ground that “there’s been a powerful continuity between the 43rd and the 44th president.” As Digby put it in summarizing Hayden’s comments: ”other than the fact that [Obama] blew the cover off the torture regime and refused to publicly endorse waterboarding and putting prisoners in coffins with poisonous bugs crawling all over them, he and Bush are two peas in a pod.” Hayden has lavished Obama with similar “praise” before, telling The New York Times in January that “[t]here is a continuum from the Bush administration, particularly as it changed in the second administration as circumstances changed, and the Obama administration,” and — in an article entitled ”Obama uses Bush plan for terror war” — told The Washington Times last month that “there is more continuity than divergence between the Bush and Obama administrations’ approaches to the war on terror“:
“You’ve got state secrets, targeted killings, indefinite detention, renditions, the opposition to extending the right of habeas corpus to prisoners at Bagram [in Afghanistan],” Mr. Hayden said, listing the continuities. “And although it is slightly different, Obama has been as aggressive as President Bush in defending prerogatives about who he has to inform in Congress for executive covert action.”
The above-cited NYT article, written by Peter Baker, also quoted numerous other GOP and right-wing figures similarly praising Obama on the grounds of continuity:
“The administration came in determined to undo a lot of the policies of the prior administration,” Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the homeland-security committee, told me, “but in fact is finding that many of those policies were better-thought-out than they realized — or that doing away with them is a far more complex task.” . . . . James Jay Carafano, a homeland-security expert at the Heritage Foundation, was blunter. “I don’t think it’s even fair to call it Bush Lite,” he said. “It’s Bush. It’s really, really hard to find a difference that’s meaningful and not atmospheric. You see a lot of straining on things trying to make things look repackaged, but they’re really not that different” . . . A senior Obama adviser scoffed at the idea that Bush advisers see continuity . . . . [b]it is true that much of the Bush security architecture is almost certain to remain part of the national fabric for some time to come, thanks to Obama.
And The Washington Times article included this: ”Fran Townsend, a former homeland security adviser to Mr. Bush, said: ‘On counterterrorism policy, they found they agree with much of what we did, but that fact is politically inconvenient to acknowledge’.”
One of the most common and vapid Beltway media clichés is that “if you’re making the Left and Right angry at you, you must be doing something right.” But as this right-wing praise demonstrates, in these areas, Obama — outside of a handful of the most crazed extremists who actually believe that he’s in confederation with Muslims Terrorists — hasn’t made the Right angry at all. Quite the opposite. Bush adherents are as pleased as can be that Obama has largely continued — even (as Bush OLC lawyer Jack Goldsmith argued) made stronger — the Bush/Cheney architecture on Terrorism and civil liberties. Contrary to Gibbs’ claim that this view is found only among the drug-addled Professional Left, this is now an undeniable fact recognized by people across the political spectrum. While those who have been highlighting these similarities from the start encountered substantial opposition and even intense anger from Democrats for quite some time, it’s now more or less a political consensus that it’s true; indeed, the only ones willing to deny it at this point are Obama officials themselves and their rapidly shrinking (though still quite vocal) band of rabidly loyal followers.
So it’s not progressive denialism on this issue that’s so striking any longer, but rather progressive indifference. The evidence is now too overwhelming to permit outright denialism, and often, even the hardest-core Obama boosters will pay lip service to the objection that Obama has continued Bush/Cheney policies in these areas (when The American Prospect‘s Mark Schmitt appeared in my comment section last week, he acknowledged that ”throughout the Democratic base, there is dissatisfaction at various levels, and much of it is warranted (civil liberties),” while The New Republic‘s Jonathan Chait, in defending Obama from liberal critiques, wrote: ”I don’t agree with Greenwald’s positions on foreign policy and civil liberties, but he does have a valid beef with Obama in these areas”). So not only on the Right, but also in the most mainstream Democratic circles, it has become more or less indisputable that Obama, with a couple of isolated (and not unimportant) exceptions, has enthusiastically embraced the core Bush/Cheney approach to the War on Terror and civil liberties.
If Obama had said in 2007 or 2008 that he intended to do this — if he had run on a Terrorism and civil liberties platform that would make the Michael Haydens and Fran Townsends of the world gush with praise — the backlash among Democratic voters would have single-handedly killed his candidacy. But now that he’s actually doing that with the vast power he wields — that he’s been given — the silence and indifference are deafening. Why is that?
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It would be one thing if War on Terror, civil liberties and executive power abuses were never much of a concern to Democratic voters, that it was just always an ancillary sideshow to more significant political matters. But the opposite was true. Throughout the Bush years, anger over the Bush/Cheney approach to civil liberties — extending far, far beyond the torture issue, encompassing the full list Hayden reeled off — was one of the driving forces of anti-Bush anger among Democratic voters. It was a central article of progressive faith that Bush was tyrannical, was “shredding the Constitution,” posed a radical threat to core governmental principles by virtue of these very policies. So important were these issues that Obama, touting his status as a “constitutional law professor,” made reversal of Bush/Cheney civil liberties and war policies a centerpiece of his campaign. As Digby wrote:
Until the last weeks of the 2008 campaign, it was dominated by the differences in approach to war and foreign policy between Barack Obama and George W. Bush and many of my friends told me that the main reason they preferred Obama over all the other candidates was his bold stand in that arena.
I personally never heard any progressive or even Democrat object that these pervasive criticisms of Bush and Cheney were inaccurate or even hyperbolic or overblown, and that was true even as the most extreme policies (such as Article II lawbreaking claims and the torture regime) receded to the background during Bush’s second term. It may be true that civil liberties issues are now a secondary concern for mainstream Democrats, but if that’s true, that is a brand new development (beginning around January 20, 2009).
Part of what explains this remarkable indifference are just basic political dynamics. Standard partisan loyalty dictates that one criticize the other party for actions which one overlooks or even defends when done by one’s own side. Particularly now as an election approaches — where the greatest threat to Democratic power is the so-called ”enthusiasm gap,” whereby Obama’s 2008 voters are unmotivated to go to the polls — no Democrat wants to hear anyone highlighting similarities between Obama and Bush (hence the constant attacks from the White House and their pundit-servants on those who keep voicing these objections). Many Democrats have become so petrified of Republicans (as intended) that they believe even legitimate criticisms of Obama should be suppressed lest the Right be empowered (just like Republicans once argued that to criticize Bush was to help the Terrorists). Many Democrats never believed or cared about their “shredding the Constitution” accusations against Bush, but just opportunistically viewed them as an effective club to beat Republicans over the head for partisan gain. For some people, the financial and unemployment crisis have drowned out concern about all other issues. And, as Digby notes, “democracy generally doesn’t apply to warmaking” — i.e., the military-industrial complex in America always reigns supreme no matter who is elected.
But I think there’s a deeper root. The first non-FISA post I ever wrote after I began blogging in November, 2005, that received substantial attention was this one from early February, 2006, entitled ”Do Bush followers have an ideology?” It argued that mainstream “conservatism” had ceased being about any specific political ideas and had instead transformed into a cult of personality around George W. Bush: “‘conservatism’ is now a term used to describe personal loyalty to the leader (just as ‘liberal’ is used to describe disloyalty to that leader), and no longer refers to a set of beliefs about government.” Having re-read that post recently, it amazes me how much of it applies to our current political situation.
The principal example there was how conservatives — who long claimed in general to believe in “limited government power” and in particular spent the 1990s sermonizing about Bill Clinton’s civil liberties abuses and violations of the Constitution — blindly endorsed the most radical expansions of executive power and civil liberties violations as soon as their Party took control of the Oval Office. Many conservatives took precisely opposite positions on the very same issues (i.e., they spent the 1990s lamenting the insufficient constraints on government eavesdropping from the secret FISA court, then suddenly claimed that the FISA court was too restrictive when it turned out Bush was violating the FISA law). In fact, many of the very same conservatives who led the way in loudly opposing greater government surveillance powers and immunity from investigation during the Clinton years — such as John Ashcroft — played a leading role in expanding those same powers during the Bush years far beyond what they had ever been before.
The parallel is too obvious to require elaboration: there is no shortage of Democrats and progressives who hurled all sorts of accusatory rhetoric at Bush and Cheney for — as Hayden put it — “state secrets, targeted killings, indefinite detention, renditions, the opposition to extending the right of habeas corpus to prisoners,” etc., yet now either turn a blind eye to or actively defend Obama as he does exactly the same thing, and sometimes worse. It’s certainly true that there has been far more dissent to Obama’s actions in these areas from prominent progressive commentators than there ever was conservative dissent to Bush, but the vast bulk of Democrats who screamed such bloody murder about these policies during the Bush years are steadfastly silent or, worse, even supportive now that Obama is doing them. I can’t think of anything more absurd than the claim that Democrats currently defending Obama’s assassination program would be defending Bush if he asserted the same unchecked power; there’d be no rhetorical limit on the accusations they’d be hurling if it were Bush and Cheney asserting the power to order the CIA to assassinate American citizens without due process and far from any battlefield.
Civil liberties and a belief in the need to check government power is something many people care about only when the other party is in control. They seem to believe that there are two kinds of leaders — Good ones (their party) and Bad ones (the other party) — and it’s only when the latter wield power that safeguards and checks are necessary. Good leaders, by definition, are entitled to trust and faith that they will wield power appropriately and for Good ends, thus rendering unnecessary things like accountability, transparency, oversight and even due process. Of course, the core premise of our government from the start was that political power will be inevitably abused if it is exercised without constraints, that nothing is more irrational or destructive than placing blind faith in political leaders to exercise unchecked power magnanimously. But the temptation to want to follow Leaders blindly — to believe in their core Goodness and to thus vest them with unverified trust — is almost as compelling a part of human nature as the abuse of power when exercised without checks and in the dark.
That’s why self-anointed defenders of the Constitution are instantly transformed into authoritarians and back again every time there is a change of party control: many people don’t believe in these principles generally, but only when political leaders they dislike are in power. The problem, though, is that endorsing civil liberties abuses because one’s own Party is in power virtually ensures that those abuses will become permanent, available to future leaders from the other Party as well. That was the argument which fell on deaf ears when made to cheering Bush supporters, and it’s barely more effective now.
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Just to underscore the “continuity” hailed by Michael Hayden, read the two-page introduction to this Brief filed on Friday by the ACLU and CCR on behalf of Anwar Awlaki [link fixed]; it’s extraordinary how similar to the Bush years are the “justifications” for Obama’s assertions of executive authority and claimed power to act free of judicial review.
UPDATE: As always happens when this topic arises, several Obama supporters are claiming that what has changed is that Obama, as President, now has access to unknown secret information which caused him to change his mind about these Terrorism and civil liberties policies. Leave aside that this is exactly what Bush supporters say about Obama in order to claim vindication (now that he knows the secret Truth, he agrees with us). Leave aside how creepily authoritarian this mentality is (if my Leader does something I don’t understand, I’ll assume that he knows — and should know — things that are kept from me which justify what he’s doing). And leave aside that Obama himself has never claimed that this is the case — he’s never said: the reason I’ve change my mind on these issues is because of secret things I’ve learned – which means that his supporters are inventing for him justifying excuses that not even he has asserted.
What’s most bizarre about this claim is that it amounts to a concession on the part of Obama supporters that Bush and Cheney were right all along, and Obama and other Democrats were wrong all along, about these disputes (now that Obama knows the secret Truth, he sees Bush and Cheney were right). But if that’s true, then many, many Democrats — beginning with Barack Obama — owe Bush and Cheney a heartfelt, sincere apology for all the accusations they voiced over the years: accusations which, according to these Obama supporters, they now realize were unwarranted.
Think about it: it would be rather reprehensible for someone like Obama to have spent years hurling the most strident accusations about Bush/Cheney, only for him to realize that they were right all along, but then never publicly acknowledge that, never apologize for or retract the unwarranted accusations he voiced about them. I sincerely doubt that this is what explains Obama’s reversal on these issues, but Obama supporters who insist that it is are unwittingly attributing to him far more repellent behavior than any Obama critic ever does (Obama now realizes Bush and Cheney were right and he was wrong but refuses to say so). And, the fact that they’re willing to proclaim that Bush and Cheney were right all along illustrates the lengths to which they’ll go to justify all of Obama’s actions.