Monday, April 27, 2009

Where Should Obama Stand on the “Torture Debate”?

Over the past week the Obama Administration has become engulfed in the debate over prosecuting Bush-era officials for approving torture-like tactics in the War on Terror.

It all started when the Obama Administration released legal memos of Bush’s Office of Legal Council justifying aggressive interrogation techniques to be used by the CIA. After former Vice-President Dick Cheney slammed the current President for this move, the White House seemingly moved back and forth on whether or not these officials should be prosecuted.

Even Obama’s main man for message, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, had trouble explaining the President’s position to David Gregory on Sunday.

It is always important in politics to keep your message clear and consistent - so far the White House has failed to do so with the torture debate. This is truly the first real political blunder of the Obama Administration. The White House needs to come up with a clear and firm position.

So what should Obama’s position be?

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that Americans are deeply divided over the torture debate. 51% of respondents said the Obama Administration should investigate Bush-era officials, 47% of respondents said they should not.

The poll also found that 7 out of 10 Democrats support that course of action, while 7 out of 10 Republicans oppose it. Independents were split about 50-50.

From an ethical or policy-driven standpoint, many complicated factors would go in to determining the President’s stance. But speaking in purely political terms, the best position would be to support Justice Department investigations and ultimately prosecuting Bush Administration officials.

It is true that this would upset many Republicans, particularly those in Congress. In our last post we mentioned that Rep. Peter King called for the GOP to halt all Congressional activities should Obama pursue investigations. The President’s former opponent, Sen. John McCain, said it would be a “witch hunt”.

To slightly adjust a famous quote of Abraham Lincoln’s, you can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all of the time.

But thus far President Obama has straddled the fence on the issue and pleased almost no one. If anyone should be getting pleased, it’s the base.

The grassroots liberals and Democratic activists in this country have been horrified over how the President has decided to “look forward”. Obama might not be seeking retribution, but the liberal base simply is. They insist that the rule of law be enforced and that those who authorized torture practices in the past must be held accountable now.

If President Obama will want to hold seats for Democrats in 2010 - or win his own re-election in 2012 - he will have to recognize the importance of these activists. Without them the Democrats will not have the donors or volunteers to wage a successful campaign.

It all comes down to a fundamental - though seldom recognized - rule in American politics. Simply put, you can’t win-over the people unless you first win-over the base.

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