Monday, September 18, 2006

Democrats to McCain: Better you than us

What Democrats dread the most – particularly in the wake of their electoral debacles of 2002 and 2004 – is the predictable GOP charge that they would undermine the personal safety of our fighting men and women. So today it is undoubtedly with considerable relief and gratitude that they can sit back and watch a quartet of esteemed Republicans train their fire at President Bush – who, in their view, is threatening to undermine the personal safety of our fighting men and women.

Politically, it wouldn’t embarrass the White House at all if a liberal Democrat – somebody like Senator Russ Feingold, for instance – stepped forward to deplore Bush’s current push for flexible torture rules. If Feingold, or Howard Dean, or Ted Kennedy, stood up for the Geneva Conventions (which have defined the international rules of war and the standards for prisoner interrogations ever since its inception in 1949), Republicans, led by the White House, would cite that behavior as further proof that Democrats have a “pre-9/11 mindset” (Karl Rove’s words), and therefore cannot be trusted to effectively wage the war on terror.

But, as evidenced again on the Sunday shows, that “pre-9/11” mindset appears to be alive and well with Senators John McCain (‘60s POW in Hanoi, and Iraq hawk), John Warner (World War II volunteer at age 17, Navy secretary under Richard Nixon, conduit to the military establishment), and Lindsey Graham (former military lawyer, judge in the Air Force reserves, citizen of South Carolina, arguably the reddest state in the South), as well as with Colin Powell (former Bush secretary of state, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former wounded Vietnam soldier).

In the midst of a hot election season, and with control of the House and Senate hanging in the balance, the GOP’s intended game plan (which can be boiled down to Democrats = wimps) is clearly undercut when someone like McCain steps forward to say that President Bush’s ideas are a clear and present danger to our troops in the field. The Bush plan to amend the Geneva Conventions for the first time ever, McCain says, “puts our military personnel and others directly at risk in this and future wars."

Nor is it helpful to the GOP game plan if someone like Graham (22 years as an Air Force JAG lawyer) shows up on a Sunday show and basically suggests that Bush is behaving in an unprincipled and lawless fashion. Arguing against Bush’s proposed breaching of the Geneva standards, Graham said: “We cannot do well if we’re seen to abandon our principles and the rule of law.”

On CBS yesterday, Graham basically articulated the argument that most Democrats seem timid to attempt. Graham said that if Congress, at Bush's behest, amends the Geneva standards in order to make torture easier, “why can’t every other country redefine the Geneva Convention to meet the needs of their secret police? It would be a disaster….I can give you plenty of examples of – for downed (U.S.) pilots, people who were caught in foreign countries, who were saved from torture and death because we insisted that the Geneva Convention be applied.”

The folks on Fox News yesterday acknowledged that Bush is not exactly helped politically when credible critics surface within his own ranks. Host Chris Wallace put this pointed question to national intelligence chief John Negroponte: “Compared to the leaders in this administration, who, in all honesty, did not see combat, don't those fellows (McCain and company) have more credibility when it comes to the rule of law and putting U.S. soldiers in danger -- rather, the rules of war and putting U.S. soldiers in danger? “ And Negroponte replied, “Well, I think certainly they have a great deal of credibility.”

Bush, at his Friday press conference, was asked directly about the point raised by Graham: whether Bush’s congressional bill for more flexible torture rules would expose our troops abroad to retaliatory torture. Bush replied: “I would hope that they would adopt the same standards we adopt.” In other words, Bush is saying that he hopes the enemy would play by Bush’s amended rules – an argument that doesn’t quite square with his repeated assertions that the enemy is lawless and doesn’t play by any rules, much less ours.

The muted Democrats are also helped in this dispute by the fact that top military officials are defying the White House. Even though Bush said repeatedly during his Friday press conference that he was merely seeking “clarity” for our interrogators who might be confused by the “vague” Geneva standards in Article 3, a top military official one day earlier had stated in effect that those vague standards had seemed clear to him for a very long time. As Major Gen. Scott C. Black, judge advocate general of the Army, reportedly said: "Article 3 is a baseline standard. And I would say that, at least in the United States Army -- and I'm confident in the other services -- we've been training to that standard and living to that standard since the beginning of our Army, and we continue to do so.”

But, in political terms, there are no guarantees that the Democrats will benefit from this internal GOP dispute. William Kristol, the Iraq-Iran hawk and conservative commentator, isn't necessarily wrong when, referring to the torture issue, he argues that "a few (GOP) defections won't prevent Republicans from saying - truthfully- that there is a real difference between the two parties on the war on terror, and that they stand with Bush and against Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi."

Notwithstanding the dissents from McCain and his allies, Bush’s basic argument might well resonate with the conservative Republican base (which is still wary of McCain anyway). Bush’s argument is visceral and boils down to a simple phrase: “We’ve got to fight the terrorists in every possible way.” And the potential variations are endless: “The Democrats won’t plunk Osama bin Laden’s head under water. We would.” Indeed, some of the latest polls, conducted in the wake of the 9/11 anniversary, report upticks in base support for Bush.

And since the ’06 congressional elections are all about base turnout, a turned-on conservative base is the crucial factor that could enable Bush’s party to hold their fragile House and Senate majorities on Capitol Hill.