In 2007, Mitt Romney set himself apart from the pack of presidential candidates by staking out an extreme position on the prison camps at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He said he wanted to “grow them” at a time when both Barack Obama and John McCain were advocating closure to improve America’s standing in the world.
This time around, it’s not even part of the presidential campaign conversation.
When asked, spokesmen for the candidates couldn’t muster anything more than canned talking points — Romney will keep them, Obama still wants to close them. And there’s no evidence that either man has raised the issue along the campaign trail where the economy is the chief concern but national security is never far behind.
The most prominent mention so far came in Clint Eastwood’s conversation with an empty chair at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. “Why close it? We spent so much money on it.”
Congress’ straight-jacketing legislation may explain it. Once Obama sought to make good on his 2008 campaign pledge by ordering his administration to close the camps by Jan. 22, 2009, Congress replied with a succession of financial and bureaucratic restrictions on the prison and the prisoners that today make a policy debate on the topic largely theoretical.
“It’s been neutralized as an issue for both sides. Whether they like it or not, the reality is there will be detainees detained at Guantánamo Bay for as long as you can see into the future,” said Steve Schmidt, senior campaign advisor in 2008 to McCain.
Congressional restrictions also forced the Obama administration to retreat on Attorney General Eric Holder’s vow to hold a civilian Sept. 11 terror trial in Manhattan, not far from 9/11’s Ground Zero. The capital case is instead being prosecuted before a military commission at the Navy base in southeast Cuba.
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