Republicans have to say something to fill the time allotted to the opposition. Imagine being trapped in the Republican debris, amid a poverty of ideas, and you can understand why they’ve spent the past week trying to conquer a tactical molehill. Never mind the mountains on the horizon—economic recovery, health-care reform, and landmark legislation on energy and global warming. The Republicans have nothing credible to say on the first two; and on the climate bill, the party of business is reduced to a faux populist attack on business for daring to agree to a cap and trade system to reduce carbon emissions.
So that leaves Guantánamo. Polling suggests that the public agrees—narrowly—with the Republican position that the prison should stay open. And Republicans can’t resist demagoguing the controversy by raising the specter of Waleed Hortons rampaging across the land. The way the Republicans paint the picture, if Willie’s Muslim brothers are brought to the U.S., they will overcome manacles and isolation to execute the first ever break-out from a super-max federal penitentiary.
Democrats in Congress opened the Republican route up the molehill by refusing to fund the closure of Guantánamo until they saw the details. Panicked by the absurd warnings of TIMBY—Terrorists in My Backyard—Democrats for the first time in a long time seemed cowed by the scare tactics on the other side.
In the end, though, this sound and fury will signify nothing. The president, who won’t yield on closing the prison, will announce his plan. His congressional majority will go along with it even as the Republicans threaten retribution at the polls in 2010. Some detainees will be transferred abroad; some will be brought to the U.S., and even tried here, while being incarcerated behind tons of steel and stone. As the imagined danger fades, so will the issue—and the Republicans will be left to search for another expedient.
We know where they’re likely to look. When the tide is running against them, Republicans instinctively cling to national security as a life raft. But they’re now losing that issue, too. Despite the Beltway blather about Dick Cheney putting the president on the defensive, a new survey from Democracy Corps shows that, for the first time in a generation, Obama has brought Democrats to parity with Republicans on handling national security. Cheney himself, whether leading the charge on Guantánamo or rising in praise of torture, may be the president’s best ally. This dull Darth Vader contaminates every message he carries.
And has anyone noticed that the Cheney brag that waterboarding saved lives requires a stunning suspension of disbelief? It was George W. Bush who called a halt to this form of torture—despite Cheney’s fervent pleas—before Obama ever took office and explicitly banned the practice. Cheney’s argument asks us to conclude that the president he disserved and the president he now denounces, both of whom saw the intelligence, consciously chose to risk the safety of Americans because they were too squeamish about the near drowning of alleged terrorists.
To John McCain’s credit, he’s warned that Republicans won’t find their way back by becoming the party of torture. His friend, the level-headed former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, has flatly disagreed with Cheney’s unsubstantiated assertion that Obama has made the country less secure. So do the majority of Americans; in the Democracy Corps survey, they say that this president is “doing better, not worse, than his predecessor” on national security. That stands to reason. After all, why would Americans take advice from those like Cheney, who left the world in tatters, respect for America shredded, and our alliances strained?
The last recourse of the rear guard, the only answer they have left, is that at least the nation has not been attacked at home since 2001. This is a blatant shift in their argument that reflects their fall from power. In office, they constantly warned that another attack was inevitable; now, if it comes, the convenient implication is that Obama’s policies will have caused it.
It’s bad enough that they might root for his failure on the economy. That anyone should contemplate the political capital that could flow from another terrorist act on American soil is unthinkable. So I have to believe that this is one instance where Cheney’s patriotism trumps political calculation. Allow me here to return the sentiment: Even though I know that Cheney’s omnipresence is an unmitigated boon to the Democrats, I’ve reached the point where, for the sake of the country, I wish Dick Cheney would just go away.