Commentary Magazine


Conventional Wisdom Wipeout

It is not just conservatives who have observed the remarkable turn of political fortunes on the Guantanamo issue.

Marty Peretz writes:

During the presidential race, Obama treated Guantanamo not as totem but as taboo. It was to be done away with. That is still the president’s position, as he reminded us in a much-publicized speech on Thursday. But the Senate had, with virtually unanimous Democratic support, already rejected his request for an $80 million appropriation to close down the detention center.  (Yes, it costs a fortune to close down a penal institution.) There are, it is true, no settled plans as to where the remaining prisoners will be detained. In America? With various allies? Send them home to detention centers in Yemen or whatever Muslim country wants them, which most don’t.  They do not want any of the incarcerated brought to the country. And neither do their elected representatives, Republicans or Democrats.  Except that the Democrats made a campaign fetish of  emptying Guantanamo–as you can see without thinking for a moment as to what would replace it.

Well that’s the nub of the problem — speech or no speech and no matter how badly Dick Cheney “trails” the president in popularity polls (there’s no race between the two so “trails” is a silly media creation) –  Obama faces. And by doubling down with a Cheney face-off  he has only highlighted his dilemma.

But if you prefer to play the “who’s winning?” game on a superficial political level the president isn’t faring much better. Even an MSM standard bearer like Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer lets on:

 [T]he fact that the President of the United States had to make this speech, the fact that Congress had turned him down in giving him the money to close Guantanamo, I have to say that on points, I give it to — to the Vice President on this. Just the fact that the debate took place, the fact that Congress, you know, turned the President down. President Obama’s been in the driver’s seat with the Congress up until now. But, Congress pretty much pulled him over to the side of the road on this issue. And until he comes up with a plan on how to close Guantanamo down, I think they’re going to continue to deny him the funds to do just that. Right now I think the Vice President has made his case. And at this point I’d have to say he’s winning.

Conventional wisdom is often wrong, but sneering at Dick Cheney’s ability to rebut the president ranks up there as some of the most misguided punditry in recent memory. This episode serves to remind us that politics is still about facts and how effectively the facts are marshaled. It is not purely a contest of personalities (although that counts for more than pundits on both sides would like to admit). Until Obama can come up with new facts ( sorry, “Guantanamo makes more terrorists” isn’t going to cut it) or figures out how to convince Americans that moving terrorists out of Guantanamo is safe and smart, I suspect he won’t be able to turn the issue to his advantage. But if we’ve learned anything, we should watch and wait. You never know how it will all turn out.