Democrats may come to regret not opposing Bush on torture

Democratic support for the torture and detention bill is as politically unwise as it is wrong on the merits.

Published September 27, 2006 2:08PM (EDT)

While it is almost certain that Congress will fail to enact a warrantless eavesdropping bill prior to Friday's adjournment, it appears equally certain that both houses of Congress will enact the president's torture and detention bill. On that issue, there seem to be only two unresolved questions at this point: 1) Exactly how draconian will the president's powers be under this bill (more on that later)? 2) How much Democratic support will this bill attract?

The willingness of Senate Democrats to vote for the torture bill appears substantial, at least if one listens to their leader, Sen. Harry Reid. From the New York Times this morning: "Democrats, who have found themselves on the losing end of the national security debate the past two national elections, said the changes to the bill had not yet reached a level that would cause them to try to block it altogether. To underscore the point, Reid said this about the bill: "We want to do this. And we want to do it in compliance with the direction from the Supreme Court. We want to do it in compliance with the Constitution."

The Times article repeatedly makes clear what Democrats have been conveying ever since the "compromise" between the White House and GOP senators was announced -- namely, that a Democratic filibuster of this bill is not going to happen. Sen. Lindsey Graham even claims that an amendment to provide habeas corpus rights to detainees -- a provision that could alleviate some of the bill's most tyrannical aspects -- "will be defeated, I think, in a bipartisan fashion, with a solid vote."

Whether or not Graham is right about Democratic opposition even to habeas corpus rights, it appears certain that not only will Senate Democrats fail to impede enactment, but at least some (perhaps even the majority of) Democrats will vote for the bill and enthusiastically praise it. Their Senate leader is already doing so.

Many political pundits have opined that the key to a Democratic victory in November (as is true for most midterm elections) is high turnout, which is accomplished by energizing the party's base. Voting for and lauding the president's torture and detention bill does not exactly appear to be a politically astute way to energize the base, to put it mildly.

In 2002, substantial numbers of Democratic senators voted in favor of the resolution to authorize President Bush to use military force in Iraq. At the time, they argued that they had no choice politically but supporting that measure because their opposition would be used by Karl Rove to depict them as weak on terrorism. Despite support of the war resolution by a solid majority of Democrats (29-22), the centerpiece of the GOP campaign against Democrats nonetheless was the accusation that they were weak on terrorism. The GOP even ran commercials morphing the face of Max Cleland into Saddam Hussein's face even though Cleland had voted for the resolution.

That Rovian strategy -- luring Democrats into supporting Bush's terrorism policies and then accusing them anyway of being weak on national security -- is precisely what led to the 2002 GOP takeover of the Senate and historic midterm gains.

In 2004, Democrats rejected a candidate who unambiguously opposed the Iraq war (Howard Dean) in favor of a candidate who voted for the war resolution (John Kerry), only to watch as Republicans successfully depicted Democrats as being weak on terrorism. Over and over, Democrats allow Republicans to depict them as weak on terrorism because they are afraid to take a stand and to articulate the rationale behind that stand.

Rove has made no secret of the fact that he plans to repeat this strategy to stave off defeat this year, and few things could aid that strategy more than the Democrats' failure to oppose the torture bill in any meaningful way. Some Democrats of conscience will vote against it, which will enable Rove -- despite substantial Democratic support for the bill -- to argue that Democrats are weak on terrorism. As the Times reports: Republicans "said they were hoping to send the bill to Mr. Bush by the end of the week for a signing ceremony that could help them kick off the home stretch of the campaign with a message that Republicans were taking strong steps to protect the nation from terror attacks."

Yale law professor Jack Balkin, whose rhetoric is typically restrained and mild, put it this way this morning: "The Democrats may think that if they let this pass, they are guaranteed to pick up more seats in the House and Senate. But they will actually win less seats this way. For they will have proved to the American people that they are spineless and opportunistic -- that, when faced with a genuine choice and a genuine challenge, they can keep neither our country nor our values safe."

Beltway Democrats and many of their supporters seem incapable of understanding that their central flaw has not been that they are "too liberal" on national security, but that they are perceived as standing for nothing. They appear weak and unprincipled not when it comes to standing up to the terrorists, but when it comes to standing up to the president for what they actually believe. Support for the torture bill is unconscionable; that ought to go without saying. But it is also politically self-destructive, because it depresses their base (who wants to vote for a party that supports the president's torture bill?) and inflames the perception that they are unwilling to fight for their convictions unless doing so is politically expedient.

The principal difference between Republicans and Democrats in 2004 was that Republicans stood firm on their principles while Democrats were perceived not to have any. In 2004, Bush's policies were already unpopular, including the war in Iraq, yet this was the defining line from his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention: "In the last four years, you and I have come to know each other. Even when we don't agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand. (Applause.)" If Democrats vote for the torture bill in significant numbers, how could the same be said for them?

As I've tried to document previously, there are ample reasons to hope for a Democratic takeover of Congress notwithstanding the unprincipled capitulation of many Democrats on what may be the most profoundly important bill of the Bush presidency. But Democrats who support the torture bill are doing very little to help that cause.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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