Over the weekend, Jane Mayer wrote, Torture and the Truth. I know that many people are thinking, “Torture! Again?! That’s so last week!” Actually, this article is not about torture. But the truth of the matter is that, for me, torture will never be so last whatever. It’s not that I ever thought that the United States was lily white, but I was appalled when Cheney started talking about the “dark side” and people began to discuss when torture might be okay. From grammar school on, I always thought that the willingness to torture was the prime thing that separated the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” So I’m never getting over this. But that’s not what I’m going to discuss here.
In Mayer’s article, she discussed how Obama blew the response to this issue. By leaving it for so long to be dealt with by the Senate, he allowed it to become just another partisan issue. She quoted political science professor Darius Rejali, “It’s becoming a lot like the death penalty.” (I find this terrifying; I really do think that the Republicans have devolved into nothing short of fascism.) But it isn’t like the issue was off the table. Mayer explained that in early 2009, pretty much all of Obama’s advisers were in favor of “the formation of an independent commission.” It wasn’t done. “Obama, however, said that he didn’t want to seem to be taking punitive measures against his predecessor, apparently because he still hoped to reach bipartisan agreement on issues such as closing Guantánamo.”
Two days ago, I quoted Garry Wills, The Problem With Obama. In it, he said that Obama is so keen to maintain continuity that he often (Usually?) does the wrong thing. I think that is at work here. But there is a political aspect here as well — one that gets to the heart of why Obama was exactly the wrong president for this period. He was so eager to placate to stop people from attacking him as a foreign radical. And what he got for that was absolutely nothing. And that will continue going forward.
Can anyone doubt that if President Cruz is elected in 2016, that he would hesitate to prosecute the previous administration for any actual scandal that turns up? The Republicans — almost twenty years ago when they were a hell of lot more reasonable than they are now — impeached a president because he lied about an affair with an intern. I’m not even convinced that if the Republicans control all of Washington in 2017 that they won’t continue on with their Benghazi and IRS fake scandal mongering.
As I mention a whole lot around here, I’m not that ideological. I’m a pragmatist. That’s why I gave the Democrats a pass on the CRomnibus. But there is a huge difference between knowing what is possible and pretending that you live in a world of fairies and elves where you can have all the candy you want. And that was certainly the world that Obama used to live in. And to a significant, but reduced, degree I think he still does.
Politics is about power. Smart power. It isn’t about rubbing your opponent’s nose in his defeat. In fact, providing face-saving concessions to your enemies is a big part of correcting wielding power. (This is something that the United States is famously bad at internationally.) But it is not about cajoling. All Obama’s efforts to entice and prove that he is a moderate (by our far-right skewing system) have only hurt his efforts to get things done. If he had called for a single-payer healthcare system, he would have been called a socialist. So he didn’t call for a single-payer healthcare system, and he was called a socialist.
Well played, Mr President!
For the record, I know that the reason we couldn’t have a single-payer healthcare system is because of all those Blue Dog Democrats — like Obama himself! I should point out, however, that the vast majority of those conservative Democrats were swept out of office in 2010, so I don’t really know what they thought they were buying. And that was as predictable as anything in politics. Conservative Democrats get elected in nominally red districts. Outside of a wave, Democrats won’t get elected there, so they are sure to lose the next time. So they might as well stand up for liberal policy. (This is assuming that they believe in liberal policy. And I have to admit that I just don’t know anymore.)