Evidence of a Democratic majority in Congress keeps fading away. The party rode antiwar sentiment back into leadership of the House and Senate a year ago, but we are no closer to withdrawal. And now we have the nomination of Michael Mukasey for attorney general.
In his Senate confirmation hearings, Mukasey refused to say whether he thought interrogation methods such as the simulation of drowning, known as waterboarding, should be considered torture. Showing fairly shallow knowledge for the next standard-bearer of justice, he said, "I don't know what's involved in the technique. If waterboarding is torture, torture is not constitutional."
One would think that by now the Democrats would have developed the spine to stand up to such nonsense nearly seven years into George W. Bush's presidency, which has sunk America's global moral standing with the unprovoked invasion of Iraq, the prison torture scandal of Abu Ghraib, and the many killings of innocent Iraqis by soldiers and contractors.
To be sure, several Democratic senators did announce that they would oppose the Mukasey nomination, including Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. But on Friday - the day politicians often announce things they hope will draw scant attention over the weekend - Democrats Charles Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California announced they would support Mukasey.
Those two votes on the Senate Judiciary Committee, combined with unanimous Republican support there, assure that Mukasey's nomination will be sent to the full Senate. Schumer was the one who originally supported the retired federal judge from his state in the spirit of bipartisanship and the hope that Mukasey was a barrier against a nominee from the hard right.
"Judge Mukasey is not my ideal choice," Schumer said in a statement. "However, Judge Mukasey, whose integrity and independence is respected even by those who oppose him, is far better than anyone could expect from this administration."
Schumer met with Mukasey late last week to see if the nominee could say anything that could help them both save face on the torture question. Schumer said "the judge made it clear to me that were Congress to pass a law banning certain interrogation techniques, we would clearly be acting within our constitutional authority. . . he flatly told me that the president would have absolutely no legal authority to ignore such a law, not even under some theory of inherent authority under Article II of the Constitution."
This fools no one. Mukasey betrayed bipartisanship the moment he feigned ignorance on waterboarding, which had been illegal for the US military since the Spanish-American War - though Bush's CIA was reported to have used it on Al Qaeda members after Sept. 11. A year ago, Vice President Dick Cheney was asked in a radio interview, "Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?" Cheney responded, "Well, it's a no-brainer for me."
After an outcry from human rights groups, Cheney denied he was talking about out-and-out waterboarding. Cheney called the debate on torture "a little silly."
This business about Mukasey abiding by whatever Congress passes is an illusion, since whatever Congress passes has to withstand a Bush veto. There is no evidence that there are enough Republicans to help the Democrats. Of the top Republican candidates for president, only Arizona Senator John McCain, a Vietnam prisoner of war, has condemned waterboarding.
Two top contenders are downright scary on the torture issue. Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani joked in a New York Times story, "They talk about sleep deprivation. I mean, on that theory, I'm getting tortured running for president of the United States. That's plain silly."
The national security adviser for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, retired Major General James Marks, said two years ago that if he thought he needed to use extreme methods in an interrogation, "I'd stick a knife in somebody's thigh in a heartbeat."
Feinstein tried to wish away her complicity by saying Mukasey is "not Alberto Gonzales." This is quite a low standard, given Gonzales's lack of credibility. The Mukasey nomination was an opportunity to tell the nation and the world that Americans are done letting this White House warp the nation's morality.
That opportunity is now apparently gone. Mukasey may be no Alberto Gonzales, but he has already signaled that he will be guided not by his own moral and legal compass, but by Bush's.
With every rationalization that lets the Bush administration off the hook, the Democrats render themselves meaningless.
Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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