Obama's allegedly "new" centrism and his ABC interview today

How have people become convinced that the decades-old Beltway platitudes of "centrism," post-partisanship and non-ideological "competence" are now new and transformative?

By Glenn Greenwald

Published January 11, 2009 1:23PM (EST)

(updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV)

The central tenets of the Beltway religion -- particularly when a Democrat is in the White House -- have long been "centrism" and "bipartisanship."  The only good Democrats are the ones who scorn their "left-wing" base while embracing Republicans.  In Beltway lingo, that's what "pragmatism" and good "post-partisanship" mean:  a Democrat whose primary goal is to prove he's not one of those leftists.  The Washington Post's David Ignatius today lavishes praise on Barack Obama for his allegiance to these Beltway pieties -- and actually seems to believe that there is something new and innovative about this approach:

The impatient freshman senator is about to become president, but he hasn't lost his distaste for Washington politics as usual. And as the inauguration approaches, Obama is doing something quite remarkable: Rather than settling into the normal partisan governing stance, he is breaking with it -- moving toward the center in a way that upsets some of his liberal allies but offers the promise of broad national support.

Obama talked during the campaign about creating a new kind of post-partisan politics -- and dissolving the country's cultural and racial and ideological boundaries. Given Obama's limited record as a centrist politician, it was hard to know if he really meant it. . . .

It turns out that Obama was serious. Since Election Day, he has taken a series of steps to co-opt his opponents and fashion a new governing majority. It's an admirable strategy but also a high-risk one, since the "center," however attractive it may be in principle, is often a nebulous political never-never land.

Whatever else one might want to say about this "centrist" approach, the absolute last thing one can say about it is that there's anything "new" or "remarkable" about it.  The notion that Democrats must spurn their left-wing base and move to the "non-ideological" center is the most conventional of conventional Beltway wisdom (which is why Ignatius, the most conventional of Beltway pundits, is preaching it).  That's how Democrats earn their Seriousness credentials, and it's been that way for decades

Several weeks ago, I documented that this was the exact approach that fueled Bill Clinton's candidacy and the Clinton Presidency.  That's what Clinton's widely-celebrated Sister Souljah moment and his Dick-Morris-designed "triangulation" were all about:  "moving toward the center in a way that upsets some of his liberal allies," as Ignatius put it today as though it's some brand new Obama invention.  Clinton's approach even resulted in his own GOP Defense Secretary.  And, during the Bush era of the last eight years, moving to the Center and spurning their base was about the only "principle" that ever animated Congressional Democrats.

That's why it's been so bizarre listening to Beltway pundits, along with some of the hardest-core Obama followers, acting as though they've discovered some brand new exotic elixir -- the most important discovery since the Fountain of Youth -- with all of these tired buzzphrases about centrism, post-partisan transcendence, and "competence over ideology."  These are the same things Democrats have been saying and doing since the early 1980s.  This is from some random, typical 1998 Democratic Leadership Council document about "The Third Way":

The Democratic Leadership Council, and its affiliated think tank the Progressive Policy Institute, have been catalysts for modernizing politics and government. From their political analysis and policy innovations has emerged a progressive alternative to the worn-out dogmas of traditional liberalism and conservatism. . . .

The Third Way philosophy seeks to adapt enduring progressive values to the new challenges of the information age. It rests on three cornerstones: the idea that government should promote equal opportunity for all while granting special privilege for none; an ethic of mutual responsibility that equally rejects the politics of entitlement and the politics of social abandonment; and, a new approach to governing that empowers citizens to act for themselves.

"The worn-out dogmas of traditional liberalism and conservatism."  And even before Clinton and the DLC, here was the centerpiece of Michael Dukakis' 1988 Democratic Convention acceptance speech:

It’s time to understand that the greatest threat to our national security in this hemisphere is not the Sandinistas—it’s the avalanche of drugs that is pouring into this country and poisoning our children.

I don’t think I have to tell any of you how much we Americans expect of ourselves or how much we have a right to expect from those we elect to public office.

Because this election isn’t about ideology. It’s about competence. It’s not about overthrowing governments in Central America. It’s about creating good jobs in middle America.

It’s not about insider trading on Wall Street; it’s about creating opportunity on Main Street.

"This election isn’t about ideology. It’s about competence."  That was Michael Dukakis' battle-cry more than 20 years ago in order to prove that he wasn't beholden to those dreaded leftist ideologues in his party, that he was instead devoted to pragmatic solutions, to "whatever works."  Yet Beltway centrist fetishists like Ignatius and some Obama supporters genuflect to those clichés -- Competence, Not Ideology! -- as though they're some kind of revolutionary, transformative dogma that the world has never heard before and that therefore serves as an all-purpose justifying instrument for whatever Obama does.

The mere fact that these ideas aren't remotely new doesn't prove that they're wrong.  Old ideas can be valid.  And it may be that Obama, once he's inaugurated, will do other things differently (Andrew Sullivan and Greg Sargent, in response to my last post on this topic, both described what they think will be new about Obama's approach).  It's also possible that Obama's undeniable political talent, or the shifting political mindset of the country, will mean that Obama will succeed politically more than anyone else has in implementing these approaches.

But whatever else is true, what Ignatius and others are celebrating as "remarkable" -- that a national Democratic politician is alienating "the Left" and embracing the center-right in the name of transcending ideological and partisan conflicts -- is about the least new dynamic that one can imagine.  That's what the most trite Beltway mavens -- from David Broder and Mickey Kaus to Joe Klein and The New Republic -- have been demanding since forever, and it's what Democratic leaders have done for as long as one can remember.

* * * * *

I've been saying since the election that it makes little sense to try to guess what Obama is going to do until he actually does it.   That's especially true now, since we'll all have the actual evidence very shortly, and trying to speculate by divining the predictive meaning of his appointments or prior statements seems fruitless.  Moreover, anonymous reports about what Obama is "likely" to do are particularly unreliable.  I still believe that, but Obama's interview today with George Stephanopoulos provides the most compelling -- and most alarming -- evidence yet that all of the "centrist" and "post-partisan" chatter from Obama's supporters will mean what it typically means:  devotion, first and foremost, to perpetuating rather than challenging how the Washington establishment functions.

As Talk Left's Jeralyn Merritt documents, Obama today rather clearly stated that he will not close Guantanamo in the first 100 days of his presidency.  He recited the standard Jack Goldsmith/Brookings Institution condescending excuse that closing Guantanamo is "more difficult than people realize."  Specifically, Obama argued, we cannot release detainees whom we're unable to convict in a court of law because the evidence against them is "tainted" as a result of our having tortured them, and therefore need some new system -- most likely a so-called new "national security court" -- that "relaxes" due process safeguards so that we can continue to imprison people indefinitely even though we're unable to obtain an actual conviction in an actual court of law.

Worst of all, Obama (in response to Stephanopoulos' asking him about the number one highest-voted question on Change.gov, first submitted by Bob Fertik) all but said that he does not want to pursue prosecutions for high-level lawbreakers in the Bush administration, twice repeating the standard Beltway mantra that "we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards" and "my instinct is for us to focus on how do we make sure that moving forward we are doing the right thing."  Obama didn't categorically rule out prosecutions -- he paid passing lip service to the pretty idea that "nobody is above the law," implied Eric Holder would have some role in making these decisions, and said "we're going to be looking at past practices" -- but he clearly intended to convey his emphatic view that he opposes "past-looking" investigations.  In the U.S., high political officials aren't investigated, let alone held accountable, for lawbreaking, and that is rather clearly something Obama has no intention of changing.

In fairness, Obama has long made clear that this is the approach he intends to take to governing.  After all, this is someone who, upon arriving in the Senate, sought out Joe Lieberman as his mentor, supported Lieberman over Ned Lamont in the primary, campaigned for Blue Dogs against progressive challengers, and has long paid homage to the Beltway centrism and post-partisan religion.  And you can't very well place someone in a high-ranking position who explicitly advocates rendition and enhanced interrogation tactics and then simultaneously lead the way in criminally investigating those who authorized those same tactics.

So Obama can't be fairly criticized for hiding his devotion to this approach.  But whatever else one wants to say about it, one cannot call it "new."  This is what Democrats have been told for decades they must do and they've spent decades enthusiastically complying.


UPDATE:  Let's emphasize what Obama is actually saying about why he can't close Guantanamo right away.  Here is his answer when asked if he'd close Guantanamo in the first 100 days:

It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize and we are going to get it done but part of the challenge that you have is that you have a bunch of folks that have been detained, many of whom who may be very dangerous who have not been put on trial or have not gone through some adjudication. And some of the evidence against them may be tainted even though it's true. And so how to balance creating a process that adheres to rule of law, habeas corpus, basic principles of Anglo American legal system, by doing it in a way that doesn't result in releasing people who are intent on blowing us up.

What he's saying is quite clear.  There are detainees who the U.S. may not be able to convict in a court of law.  Why not?  Because the evidence that we believe establishes their guilt was obtained by torture, and it is therefore likely inadmissible in our courts (torture-obtained evidence is inadmissible in all courts in the civilized world; one might say it's a defining attribute of being civilized).  But Obama wants to detain them anyway -- even though we can't convict them of anything in our courts of law.  So before he can close Guantanamo, he wants a new, special court to be created -- presumably by an act of Congress -- where evidence obtained by torture (confessions and the like) can be used to justify someone's detention and where, presumably, other safeguards are abolished.   That's what he means when he refers to "creating a process."

Amazingly, when discussing the same topic, Obama vowed that "we will send a message to the world that we are serious about our values."  How?  By creating a new court just for accused Islamic radicals that allows us to use confessions and other evidence that we obtained through torture?  That sounds like exactly the same "message about our values" that we've been sending.  


UPDATE II:  Regarding Obama's apparent desire to have a new process created where torture-obtained evidence can be used (and/or where the standards of proof are lowered), the U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1935 case of Brown v. Mississippi, addressed the question of whether the U.S. Constitution allowed the State of Mississippi to use a confession obtained by beatings and other forms of coercion to convict African-American defendants of murder (h/t lennonist).  The Court invalidated the convictions because they were secured by coerced confessions and said (emphasis added):

In Fisher v. State, 145 Miss. 116, 134, 110 So. 361, 365, the court said: 'Coercing the supposed state's criminals into confessions and using such confessions so coerced from them against them in trials has been the curse of all countries. It was the chief iniquity, the crowning infamy of the Star Chamber, and the Inquisition, and other similar institutions.  The Constitution recognized the evils that lay behind these practices and prohibited them in this country. . . .  The duty of maintaining constitutional rights of a person on trial for his life rises above mere rules of procedure, and wherever the court is clearly satisfied that such violations exist, it will refuse to sanction such violations and will apply the corrective.'

There's absolutely no good reason for Obama not to close Guantanamo immediately and simply try the detainees in our already-extant courts of law.  That's how we've convicted all sorts of accused terrorists in the past.  The only reason not to do so is a desire to disregard -- violate -- these long-standing American principles and instead create a new process that allows torture-obtained evidence to be used. 


UPDATE III:  Read Digby on this same issue.  She focuses on the cover story in this week's Newsweek by supreme torture apologist Stuart Taylor and Evan Thomas, which argues that Obama is going to have to be like Dick Cheney if he wants to keep us all safe.  It urges that "the new crowd would do well to listen to Jack Goldsmith, formerly a Bush Justice Department official."  The Newsweek cover touts the article with this caption:  "What Would Dick Do?"  That's the new motto that the Beltway has for instructing Obama as to what he must ask if he is to keep us safe (h/t sysprog):

That's Beltway centrism:  Obama must ask "What Would Dick Do"?  It's not only, as I said above, among the oldest and most tired platitudes in Washington.  It's also as far from being "non-ideological" as it gets.


UPDATE IV:  The ACLU's Jameel Jaffer and Ben Wizner, in an excellent Salon article last month, addressed exactly the argument made today by Obama when, last month, it was advanced by the Brookings Institution's Benjamin Wittes:   namely, that because evidence against Guantanamo detainees (such as alleged 20th hijacker Mohamed Al Qahtani) is "tainted" because it was obtained by torture, we must now change the rules of our legal system -- or create a new court -- to allow its use:

In short, Qahtani was a victim of what the United States once undoubtedly would have prosecuted as war crimes -- the distinction being that in this instance, those crimes were authorized by the secretary of defense and implemented by Guantánamo's commanding general. . . .

Assuming, as Wittes does, that there is no evidence of Qahtani's involvement in criminal conduct that is untainted by the government's criminal conduct toward him -- something that is by no means clear -- his case squarely presents the question whether we are prepared to change our laws in order to avoid the consequences of the Bush administration's criminal embrace of torture. Wittes' argument can be summarized succinctly as follows: 1) We brutally tortured Qahtani; 2) thus, our evidence of his criminality is "tainted," rendering his prosecution impracticable; 3) therefore, we must amend our laws to allow for Qahtani's indefinite detention without charge or trial. Thus does the Bush administration's catastrophic insistence that an entirely new legal regime was necessary become, in the hands of a liberal scholar, a self-fulfilling prophecy. . . .

But perhaps the most salient flaw in the current crop of detention proposals is that they are solutions in search of a problem. The class of people who cannot be prosecuted but are too dangerous to let go is either very small or nonexistent. To the extent that it exists at all, it is a class that was created by the administration's torture policies. To build a system of detention without trial in order to accommodate those torture policies would be a legal and moral catastrophe, a mistake of historic proportions.

How an Obama administration chooses to tackle these issues will determine, in large part, the legal legacy of the last eight years. Even the clearest renunciation of torture will be an empty gesture if we simultaneously construct a new detention regime meant to permit prosecutors to rely on torture's fruits. That our justice system prohibits the imprisonment of human beings on the basis of evidence that was beaten, burned, frozen or drowned out of them is evidence of its strength, not its weakness. It is why we call it a "justice system" in the first place.

It is possible, though unlikely, that one consequence of the Bush administration's criminal embrace of torture is that the United States will be compelled to release an individual who might otherwise have been prosecutable for terrorism. Were this to occur, it would not be the first time that our commitment to the rule of law has required that we let a potentially dangerous person walk free. We can accept this risk as an inherent cost of freedom, or we can diminish that freedom in a misguided -- and shortsighted -- attempt to reduce that risk. The choice we make will not determine the nation's survival. It will, however, shape its identity.

Creating a new and separate justice system designed to accommodate the Bush administration's torture regime, as Jaffer and Wizner compellingly argue, would be to undermine every goal Obama claimed he intended to achieve in this area.

Glenn Greenwald

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