Watching torture become normal

The GOP is likely to abandon whatever nominal doubts it still has about "intensive interrogation"

Published June 7, 2010 2:45PM (EDT)

I haven't yet commented on George W. Bush's remarks on torture this past week, because I can't really find much to say but how sad it is, at least for those who don't want to see torture eventually emerging as explicit American policy. In other words, I agree completely with Andrew Sullivan:

To place the full weight of the presidency behind war crimes is sign of where this country is...This remains a live issue. A future Republican president will almost certainly now embrace torture as integral to American values and law.

I will disagree with Sullivan on one thing. He refers to his own attempt to convince Bush to repudiate torture as "sad," by which I guess he means hopeless, or sadly naive. I disagree.  Sullivan's open letter to Bush was, in my view, noble -- an honest attempt to engage with a president who was as apt to say "we don't torture" as he was to authorize torture. If you haven't read Sullivan's letter, you really should. I believed, as Sullivan I think believed, that Bush meant it, both ways, and that it was at least possible that on reflection the "we do not torture" side would win out. That's why I've advocated pardon-plus-commission; I think that it's very possible that quite a few people involved may believe that torture was a mistake, but that they'll never say that publicly as long as they, or the people they worked with, could go to jail.

But Bush, at least, doesn't seem to be headed in the "we do not torture" direction. And I do think that without him, it would be very difficult to move the Republican Party on this issue. The only other hope is that an explicitly pro-torture presidential candidate gets clobbered -- which certainly is a plausible scenario  in 2012 -- but even then, it's more likely that the Rush Limbaughs and Marc Thiessens of the world would interpret such an event as a sign that the candidate wasn't sufficiently strident on the issue. There are to be sure quite a few conservatives who oppose torture, but fewer and fewer of them are candidates for elective office. Barring something new (and Bush could still flip, after all), I think a pro-torture candidate and platform is virtually certain for the GOP in 2012. And we know how the nomination process works (in both parties): candidates who are in reality basically similar in their positions on public policy are driven to differentiate themselves by taking high-profile extreme positions on symbolic, highly visible issues.


By Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

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George W. Bush Republican Party Torture