Liberal Democrats and their media allies are having a field day. The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture has allowed the political left to go back to its favorite pastime: bashing the Bush administration and their pet demon Vice President Dick Cheney. But as good as this feels to them, Democrats should be worried about the possibility that this issue will not only carry over into the new year but become part of the left’s standard foreign-policy talking points as we head into the 2016 presidential election cycle. Though anything that allows them to relive their glory days when hatred for all things Bush was their excuse for a political platform seems enticing, it’s actually a trap. The more the torture issue is allowed to play out as a partisan fight, the more trouble it will be for Democrats in the long run.
It’s true that reigniting a debate about the use of torture on al-Qaeda prisoners enables liberals to go back to that happy time when they could concentrate all their energy attacking Bush and Cheney as lying, torturing warmongers. It also allows them to channel their 2006 and 2008 outrage about the GOP without having to acknowledge that the man they elected to reverse everything done by the 43rd president has, without the exception of enhanced interrogation, largely kept in place the policies they thought made the last GOP president and his team liable for either prosecution as unconstitutional law breakers or even war criminals.
But, like some isolationists on the right who might be deceived into thinking the discussion about torture will help undermine support within the Republican Party for an aggressive fight against Islamist terrorism, so, too, are Democrats wrong to think talking about this will do much to enhance their prospects in 2016. To the contrary, the more the left helps focus the country on the renewed war against a brutal Islamist foe, not only are they not playing to their party’s strength, but they are also failing to understand that the national mood is very different today from where it was when Bush and Cheney were popular piñatas for the left.
It needs to be understood that the reason why the Obama administration has undertaken the half-hearted offensive it launched against ISIS was that the terror group’s atrocities reminded Americans why they were pretty comfortable with the Bush-Cheney policies before the Iraq War soured. When they were rightly afraid of another 9/11, most people weren’t terribly interested in asking questions about how the intelligence community was acting to avert another atrocity. ISIS’s beheadings of American captives revived those fears and even if that group is currently more intent on asserting control of territory than in launching spectacular terror operations, the possibility that it or another group might strike Western targets is a possibility that can’t be safely discounted.
That’s why President Obama is trying to thread the political needle by disassociating himself from both the use of torture as well as attacks on the CIA and the calls for prosecution of Bush administration officials from his party’s political base. Though he has continued much of what Bush and Cheney started, the dependence on signal rather than human intelligence combined with an emphasis on assassinating terrorists rather than capturing them and getting them to talk has undermined confidence in the ability of the security apparatus to know what the enemy is thinking or planning.
All too many on the left approach these issues as if it is always September 10, 2001. So long as terror and a Middle East made more dangerous by Obama’s retreats from Iraq and Afghanistan are not issues, they can indulge in Bush-bashing to their heart’s content. But miring themselves in the politics of the Bush administration hurts the ability of Democrats to put themselves forward as a serious foreign-policy party at a time when terror is back on the national radar and likely to remain there for the next two years. It will also hamstring Hillary Clinton’s attempt to position herself again as a more responsible foreign-policy leader than Obama. The torture debate will bring to the fore exactly those figures in the Democratic Party who are most likely to make centrist voters think they shouldn’t be trusted with the country’s security. That’s good news for MSNBC and its dwindling band of viewers but bad for a party that needs to spend more time trying to appeal to white middle and working class independent voters rather than its left-wing core.
Just as important, Democrats gang tackling Republicans who are part of the nation’s past will mean less time spent trying to demonize the GOP figures they should be afraid of among the large field of credible presidential candidates. Those on the left that think that’s smart politics are setting their party up for a long, comfortable stay in opposition rather than winning in 2016.