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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Ideological Pandora's Box

Right at the beginning of his presidency, then President Bush took a lot of heat from the right for not pursuing investigations against Bill Clinton regarding several high profile pardons in his last remaining days. President Bush knew full well that while the base wouldn't be happy, he also wouldn't be able to move on with his own agenda if he decided to take up such a highly polarizing issue. Right now, I would like to be a fly on the wall of meetings with David Axelrod, Obama's chief political advisor. Does Axelrod see the recent hubub over "torture" with the same politically explosive ptential for polarization?

In my opinion, President Obama has stepped into a minefield, politically, and it won't be easy to get out. Once President Obama released classified memos regarding enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding, he opened up a pandora's box that won't easily close. The immediate political benefit is obvious. He immediately sets himself up against the previous administration. That's brilliant. Bush's popularity is abysmal and his is strong. (for now) He had to know that simply releasing the memos wouldn't end the story. Now Cheney wants other memos released. he wants memos released that showed what sorts of information we gathered regarding the techniques. Now, Obama is stuck. If he releases these memos and they verify Cheney, he sets off a larger and more partisan debate. If he doesn't, everyone will still wonder if Cheney is right and wonder why Obama won't release them.

Obama could have limited the damage by ending things there, but that wasn't good enough. So, yesterday, he suggested that he would be open to prosecutions of Bush officials. That would certainly please his political base, but no one else. Show trials of Bush officials would make the partisan battles of the Lewinsky debacle seem mild. In fact, show trials of Bush officials would make the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton seem mild.

Now, President Obama has ceded to the Justice Department to see if there are any punishable offenses. Well, there are only a few outcomes to this. First, Justice could decide that there are no punishable offenses. That, ironically enough, would be the best outcome for Obama. Yes, that would be embarrassing and the left would scream, but that scenario would end the whole sordid affair fairly quickly. On the other hand, Justice could begin to hand down indictments. Let's take that to its logical conclusion. Ultimately, the person responsible most for authorizing waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques was the president himself. After all, whatever opinions were written, it was the commander in chief that authorized them. If the techniques are found to be illegal, then the only logical conclusion must be to indict President Bush.

Such is what all far left folks want, and again, only far left folks want it. Now, just imagine the partisan explosion that an indictment from the current administration of the president of the previous administration. That wouldn't merely consume Obama's presidency, but overwhelm it. To call such an environment toxic would be quite the understatement. Does anyone believe anything would be done while the previous president were under indictment?

Then, there is the other possibility that Obama would create a 9/11 like bi partisan commission. Again, there's only a few scenarios here. If the hearings are televised, they would almost certainly turn partisan. Every Democrat would make the assertion that these techniques were torture. Every Republican would stress just how many lives were saved. The final report would either be a partisan hit job or it would be balanced. So, if it were balanced, the conclusions would go something like this. The techniques were extreme and even illegal, but as a result, thousands of lives were saved. This would set off a partisan explosion that would polarize the nation. Those that agreed with the techniques would say see they saved lives. Those that opposed them would say see they are torture. If it's partisan, toward either side, it would set off a partisan explosion that would polarize the nation obscenely. Do you see a pattern forming? Any hope of being post partisan would go by the wayside almost laughably.

Finally, there is another specter looming. What if in the next two years, we are hit. Then, ultimately, the reason we were hit wouldn't matter. At least 50% of the nation would conclude that it was because Obama stopped using these techniques. He would be viewed as a vindictive president more worried about bloodying his predecessor than protecting the nation. Forget his presidency, he would admire the legacy of Herbert Hoover. The Democrats would be through for decades.

This is an awful political football. The president should have recognize that there was nothing to gain by throwing it. Instead, he's decided move forward with it. Now, he can't simply walk back. People are expecting a Justice investigation and they're expecting a blue ribbon panel. There is political pitfalls whether he gives on both or on either.


Anonymous said...

The scenario you describe would essentially be putting Conservatism on trial.

That being said, you assert that the far left wants this and only the far left wants this. What exactly do you consider far left? I've heard the phrase bandied about so much by conservatives lately it makes me think they consider anyone to the left of Reagan to be far left.

Furthermore, partisanship in this country is already extremely intense, and has been for years. I've spoken to plenty of Democrats who considered Lewinsky-gate an attempt by the Republicans to overthrow Clinton. Everybody wants everybody impeached. The Republicans are acting like they're going to try to filibuster every single bill in Congress. I guess the only way this could get any worse is if there were riots at polling places or something.

mike volpe said...

It wouldn't be putting conservatism on trial but the Bush administration on trial. Is it the job of the president to put the other ideology on trial? What would happen to his own agenda while he is conducting this trial? nothing, that's what.

Rather than defining the far left, I would say that it is no more than 30% of the country. Most people are not looking for show trials.

A debate on the worthiness and legality of waterboarding and other such techniques is one thing. This is more on the level of trying to demonize the former administration.

Partisanship is high, but this exercise would ratchet it all up exponentially and that's the point. In such a highly partisan environment nothing gets done, and the president would be blamed for creating it.

section9 said...

This one act defines both the arrogance and shortsightedness of Barack Obama the man.

It has always been critical for each Administration, and both political parties, to carry on the function of government by letting bygones be bygones and getting forward with the business of the people. Nixon, for example, knew full well of the criminality of the Kennedy Administration and the lies peddled by Johnson. However, he carried on.

What you see here is a Democratic Party, moved forward by an animated and vengeful base, pushed relentlessly at its political zenith towards its own destruction. People cannot see this now, but it will of needs be.

The problem with the Democrats, of course, is that they are so angry at Republicans that they cannot see the other side of the equation. Obama probably believes that show trials will cripple the Republican Party for a decade and make it easier for him to get his agenda in place. In fact, the very opposite will happen, as you suggest: it will polarize the nation. Republicans will cohere behind "their political prisoners" and behind an opponent, such as Palin or Romney, who can give voice to their opposition.

And what's more, there will be no consensus that these are fair trials at all. Republicans will, rightly in my opinion, mount an Eastarn Front defense-a scorched earth campaign depicting any trials or inquests as political in nature. Their legitimacy will be in question from the beginning.

The effects of a follow-on attack on the homeland, of course, will be incalculable to Democratic fortunes, as you further suggest. Democrats do not see this at all right now, as their political fortunes are at zenith.