Thursday, January 31, 2008

Torture and the electorate

And then there was one.
With the withdrawal yesterday of former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, there remains only 1 candidate to replace George W. Bush as U.S. President who is consistently supportive of Bush's post-9/11 detention and interrogation policies. That fact suggests that voters may be far more concerned about, ashamed about, revolted by, those policies than is typically recognized.
Assumption that the policies don't matter derives from polls like this one, which found last November that 40% of Americans would approve of torture "to try to get information from suspected terrorists." But it's my guess that poll results on such a highly charged question are unreliable. The politics of fear have dominated America's public discourse far too long for pollsters to expect full, honest, rational responses. "Either you're with us or you're with the terrorists," Bush declared almost immediately after the attacks of September 11, thus drawing a rhetorical line in the sand. As late as 2004, many judged it unpatriotic to oppose Bush. It seems likely then that when asked their thoughts on detention and interrogation by pollsters, many Americans may hesitate to express concerns they feel lest they be seen as "soft on terrorists" or "too hard on our troops."
Is it only a coincidence that the only candidates left in the running are critics of post-9/11 practices?
Both remaining Democratic candidates, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, called for closure of Guantánamo soon after announcing their official campaigns last year. Every time I have heard Obama speak I have heard him repeat this call, to every audience, even in "conservative" areas. It is part of Obama's condemn-torture-close-Gitmo-this-is-not-who-we-are-as-Americans mantra, one that I've yet to hear being met with anything other than bursts of applause. (The only exception came once when he added restore-habeas-corpus to the mantra; then I detected a few vibes of "Huh? Who's Havia Scorpus?")
A question that voters seem to be asking candidates this year goes like this:
Will you bring back civil liberties?
or, phrased another way,
America seems to have lost her way. What are you going to do about that?
The question surely signals disquiet, if not outrage, at the way the United States has treated captives in what the Bush Administration calls the "Global War on Terror."
It is not just diehard liberal Democrats asking the question, either. I heard it repeatedly a couple weeks ago in Nevada. About 116,000 women and men cast Democratic ballots, shattering the Nevada record by 107,000 votes. Many of those I saw and met changed their registration to vote Democratic; it was they who were asking the question, they who cheered in a gymnasium in Reno when Obama proclaimed:
I used to teach the Constitution. I revere the Constitution. And as President I will obey the Constitution.
Look too at what's happened in the GOP.
The candidate who staked his claim on supertough counterterrorism -- Giuliani -- never came close to winning in any state. The candidate who now seems the likely nominee, Sen. John McCain, has, as we've posted here and here, been strong, steadfast, and outspoken in his condemnation not only of torture but also -- in keeping with international obligations the United States assumed on ratification of treaties like the Convention Against Torture -- cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Another still standing, Mike Huckabee, goes back and forth on these issues, and in any event does not center his campaign on preserving current antiterrorism policies.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney does support those policies. He wants others to endure the treatment Khalid Sheik Mohammed has, wants to double Guantánamo, too. He's the only remaining candidate to espouse these views consistently; it thus deserves note that his star also appears to be fading.
Is it only a coincidence that voters seem to be gravitating toward other candidates? Even, at times, away from their traditional party and toward a party more certain to bring an end to post-9/11 excesses?

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