Obama Sabotages Himself with Fake 'Pragmatism'

A new poll from the Democratic polling firm founded by James
Carville and Stan Greenberg -- and co-sponsored by the "centrist" Third
Way -- provides what its sponsors call
"a wake-up call for President Obama, his party, and progressives on
national security," because "[h]istorical doubts about the Democratic
Party on national security show signs of reviving." This
"Dems-losing-on-Terrorism" character

A new poll from the Democratic polling firm founded by James
Carville and Stan Greenberg -- and co-sponsored by the "centrist" Third
Way -- provides what its sponsors call
"a wake-up call for President Obama, his party, and progressives on
national security," because "[h]istorical doubts about the Democratic
Party on national security show signs of reviving." This
"Dems-losing-on-Terrorism" characterization is predictably being
adopted by most media accounts -- Poll: Obama wrong on terror suspects and Poll shows Obama, Dems losing ground
-- and will almost certainly accelerate (and provide the excuse for)
the administration's abandonment of the very few decisions where they
deviated from Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies. The reality of the poll
is far more mixed than is being depicted -- the public believes Obama is doing better than Bush
on national security generally and specifically on the handling of
Terrorism, and Obama's national security approval ratings remain far
higher than any other category -- but it is true (at least according to
this poll) that Americans have increasingly sided with
the Cheneyite-GOP argument on specific civil liberties/Terrorism
questions, including civilian trials v. military commissions.

of this underscores a vital point: the Obama White House is hamstrung
by its own embrace of the Bush/Cheney Terrorism template in advocating
for its own policies. The pollsters' Memo stresses, for instance, that
the primary justification Obama officials offered in defending their
Mirandizing of the attempted Christmas Day bomber -- Bush did it toowith Richard Reid -- is ineffective and makes them appear "weak":

resist the argument that the Obama administration simply handled the
Christmas bomber in the same way the Bush administration handled the
"shoe bomber" case; this sounds political, and produces a weak response.

can this response be anything other than weak and muddled? Democrats
generally and Obama specifically have spent years telling the country
that Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies were lawless, immoral, inept and
counter-productive. Yet the minute there's a controversy over
Obama's Terrorism policy, his first justification is: we're only doing what Bush and Cheney did.
He can't stand on his own two feet and forcefully justify civilian
trials or Mirandizing Terrorist suspects; he has to take refuge in the
fact that Bush also did it -- as though that proves it's the right
thing to do, because Bush/Cheney is the Standard-Bearer of Toughness on
Terrorism. If you're going to embrace the core Bush/Cheney model on
Terrorism and point to what they did as though that's the guide for how
things should be done -- and if you're going to run to them for refuge
and protection -- and if you're going to reverse yourself and
capitulate at slightest sign of political pressure (FISA, detainee
photos, civilian trials) -- is it really any surprise that people will
begin to conclude that Bush and Cheney had things basically right and
that Democrats are"weak" (not because of specific policies, but because
of their fear of arguing for and sticking with their own positions)?

This is the same point made, albeit in a different form, by Stanley Fish in today's New York Times,
who argues that there is a growing nostalgia for George Bush among many
media figures and the country generally (which, at least with regard to
media elites, I've noted before as well;
there's zero evidence it's true of the public generally, and Fish's
attempt to prove otherwise is unbelievably lame). Still, today's poll
proves the public is far more receptive than before to arguments coming
from the Cheneyite faction, and Fish, persuasively, points to this as a
major reason why:

policies came to seem less obviously reprehensible as the Obama
administration drifted into embracing watered-down versions of many of
Guantanamo hasn't been closed. No Child Left Behind
is being revised and perhaps improved, but not repealed. The banks are
still engaging in their bad practices. Partisanship is worse than ever.
Obama seems about to back away from the decision to try 9/11 defendants
in civilian courts, a prospect that led the ACLU to run an ad in
Sunday's Times with the subheading "Change or more of the same?" Above
that question is a series of photographs that shows Obama morphing into
guess who -- yes, that's right, George W. Bush.

I wish
everyone would read that first, bolded sentence every day. This is a
point I've been trying to make in different ways for many months. It
is obviously impossible to maintain that the Terrorism and other
national security policies of George Bush and Dick Cheney were radical,
heinous, evil and wrong if the successor administration -- one from
"the other party," filled with people who spent years vehemently
condemning those policies -- end up adopting most of those same
policies and the core approach itself. Inevitably, that behavior will
come to be seen as vindication (now that Obama is in office, he sees those policies are necessary),
and worse, converts what had been viewed as extremist, highly
controversial right-wing policies into unchallenged bipartisan

It's only natural that many people in the country say to themselves: how
bad could George Bush and Dick Cheney really have been in these areas
if their core policies are being adopted by Obama? Apparently, there
must not be anything wrong with indefinite detention, military
commissions, renditions, state secrets, etc. because Obama has embraced
them as well.
And once those conclusions are fostered, it's
hardly a surprise that Bush officials such as Dick Cheney will once
again be listened to as a credible authority on such matters; if he,
after all, had the basic approach right, why deviate from it at all?

and even more important, think about how rhetorically difficult it is
for the Obama administration to defend civilian trials when they themselves are subjecting scores of detainees (in fact, most) to military commissions or indefinite detention.
It's a completely confused, unprincipled, self-negating approach that
can only produce muddled, unprincipled and therefore weak defenses.
Nobody in the administration can possibly argue (as Democrats used to vocally argue) that
military commissions, indefinite detention and denial of civilian
trials are un-American and counter-productive, because the Democratic
administration is now doing exactly that. So if you can't argue that,
how can you possibly defend civilian trials, or rebut the GOP claim
that accused Terrorists should be placed before military commissions or
indefinitely detained? You can't -- you have no argument -- and that's
why Obama is losing this debate.

a difference -- a fundamental one -- between (a) being pragmatic in
trying to implement one's principles and (b) having no principles at
all and and glorifying that unanchored emptiness as "pragmatism." Once
you enter the realm of (b), you are not only guilty of having no
principles (a sin in its own right), but you're incapable of finding a
way to effectively justify what you're doing, because you have no
coherent principles to which you can credibly appeal. In virtually
every realm (health care, financial reform, national security), and
especially in Terrorism/civil liberties, that has been the great
political failure of the Obama administration.

* * * * *

spoke at NYU School of Law last week, and in the various questions that
were asked, these are the issues that were raised repeatedly. I'll
post a couple of the relevant excerpts in just a few minutes.

UPDATE: Here are several 3-5 minute excepts from the NYU Law School event I did last week, moderated by NYU Law Professor Stephen Holmes, that are relevant to this discussion:

On principles v. pragmatism:

On civilian v. military tribunals and the "Soft on Terror" attack:

On the prospects of winning these debates:

was a really great event -- virtually all smart and probing questions
-- and so I'll try to post the rest of the excerpts elsewhere a bit
later today.

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