Commentary Magazine


Democrats Fight, President Does What?

The feeding frenzy unleashed by the president’s apparent support for an investigation and possible prosecution of those who participated in the enhanced interrogation policies of the Bush administration is now working its way through Congress. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid weighed in on Wednesday, opposing the establishment of a bipartisan commission and supporting the continued role of Sen. Diane Feinstein’s Intelligence Committee to conduct “closed door hearings.” This is curious.

Has Reid independently decided that a public witch-hunt would be a bad move? Or is the White House using Reid to walk back the president’s position (his post-CIA visit position, not his let bygones-be-bygones position), try to quell the firestorm, and get on with the rest of the presidency? Reid is not known for his independence of mind or willingness to stand up to the netroot crowd, so the latter may be at work.

But this won’t sit well with Sen. Patrick Leahy, who’s itching for a public hanging. . . er. . .  hearing, and for plenty of time to grandstand. Even if the White House attempts to quell the fury — if that is what they are doing — Leahy may be in no mood to take the hint. And Nancy Pelosi is gung-ho as well.

This is what has ensued from the president’s decision to kick wide open the door to public hearings, investigations, and prosecutions. His own party, not to mention the Republicans and the public, must now fight it out: criminalize the prior administration or not? Spend weeks or months with a parade of witnesses pointing fingers at superiors, subordinates, and even congressional leaders who knew and approved of the policies at issue?

And now the administration is frustrated, we are told, that everyone is so distracted and not paying attention to the economy and the president’s domestic agenda. Howard Fineman observes:

For an administration that has prided itself on clarity of expression, it is all getting very confusing very fast. Today’s briefing, which was supposed to focus on the administration’s first 100 days, was dominated at the start by knotty questions about torture, torture memos, legal issues and the like. The senior official expressed frustration about this. The economy—not the recent history of interrogation techniques—is far and away the most important issue on the minds of voters, he insisted. Obama has done the most important thing, he argued, by banning the techniques in question. The American people, he said, want to look forward, and not dwell on issues of the past. On the left there is a lot of “pent-up energy,” the official conceded, among opponents of the Iraq War, but that sentiment can be “very divisive and distracting” at a time when the Obama administration is trying to pass a budget and accomplish other domestic goals such as health-care.

Who is to blame for all that? A simple declaration from Obama that our interrogation policy has changed and we in this country don’t criminalize past administrations’ conduct would have gone a long way toward shutting down the “divisive and distracting” controversy which is now engulfing Washington. But that would have meant taking on his netroot base. That would have meant using his personal popularity to direct the country away from a vindictive witch hunt. And that is something he plainly wasn’t up to. So now, alas, that’s all the media and Congress want to talk about. Abdication of leadership has its price.