One Tall Voice

Barack Obama’s response to John McCain’s “September 10 mentality” attacks points up what I think is truly the most significant departure from the Democratic Party leadership style since, arguably, John F. Kennedy. And really, the parallel between Obama and JFK breaks down upon reflection, because the Democratic Party was such a different entity back then: It existed in a political context that is so radically different from the one we’ve known for the past 25-30 years that it might as well be a different party altogether.

This latest round between the candidates began after an interview Obama gave to ABC News’s Jake Tapper, in which Tapper asked Obama about his response to last week’s Supreme Court decision:

TAPPER: Speaking of the Supreme Court, you applauded the decision that the Supreme Court made last week. The Bush administration says, no matter what people think about other programs, other policies they’ve initiated, there has not been a terrorist attack within the U.S. since 9/11. And they say the reason that is, is because of the domestic programs, many of which you opposed, the NSA surveillance program, Guantanamo Bay, and other programs.

How do you know that they’re wrong? It’s not possible that they’re right?

OBAMA: Well, keep in mind I haven’t opposed, for example, the national security surveillance program, the NSA program. What I’ve said that we can do it within the constraints of our civil liberties and our Constitution.

TAPPER: They disagree, though.

OBAMA: Well, but the fact that they disagree does not mean that they’re right on this. What it means is, is that they have been willing to skirt basic protections that are in our Constitution, that our founders put in place.

And it is my firm belief that we can track terrorists, we can crack down on threats against the United States, but we can do so within the constraints of our Constitution. And there has been no evidence on their part that we can’t.

And, you know, let’s take the example of Guantanamo. What we know is that, in previous terrorist attacks — for example, the first attack against the World Trade Center, we were able to arrest those responsible, put them on trial. They are currently in U.S. prisons, incapacitated.

And the fact that the administration has not tried to do that has created a situation where not only have we never actually put many of these folks on trial, but we have destroyed our credibility when it comes to rule of law all around the world, and given a huge boost to terrorist recruitment in countries that say, “Look, this is how the United States treats Muslims.”

So that, I think, is an example of something that was unnecessary. We could have done the exact same thing, but done it in a way that was consistent with our laws.

The McCain campaign immediately slipped the tried-and-true “dangerously naive” cd into the player:

McCain campaign Foreign Policy Advisor Randy Scheunemann said in response: “Barack Obama’s belief that we should treat terrorists as nothing more than common criminals demonstrates a stunning and alarming misunderstanding of the threat we face from radical Islamic extremism. Obama holds up the prosecution of the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 as a model for his administration, when in fact this failed approach of treating terrorism simply as a matter of law enforcement rather than a clear and present danger to the United States contributed to the tragedy of September 11th. This is change that will take us back to the failed policies of the past and every American should find this mindset troubling.”

As I said, nothing the slightest bit different about that response. It’s the same old “soft on terrorism” song and dance we’ve heard from Republicans (and some quote unquote Democrats). It usually works like a charm. Just type “Democrats gutless wonders” or “craven Democrats” into Google and you’ll get all the examples you could want or need.

But not from Obama. He has something we have not seen in most Democrats for a very long time: a backbone:

Responding to charges by the campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, that comments he made to ABC News indicate he has a “naive” pre-9/11 view of terrorism, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, told reporters Tuesday that Republicans are not trying to debate issues but instead scare the American people.


The McCain campaign argued that heralding the prosecution of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers indicated Obama had a “September 10” mindset and wanted to pursue terrorists purely as a law enforcement matter.

Obama today rejected that depiction.

After this reporter tried to read Obama’s quote back to him, Obama interrupted.

“I remember my quote, Jake,” Obama said. “I was there, it was just yesterday.” This reporter pointed to the section of Obama’s quote where he said “the administration has not tried to do” what was done in with the previous World Trade Center bombers, who were prosecuted, and said Republicans were arguing that he seemed to be saying the administration should have tried to do with detainees what they did in 1993.

“Jake, that’s not what they’re driving at,” Obama said. “What they are trying to do is what they’ve done every election cycle, which is to use terrorism as a club to make the American people afraid – to win elections – that’s what they’re trying to do.”

“They are not serious about this,” he continued. “Because if they wanted to have a serious conversation about it then they would know for example that the issue of Habeas Corpus is not designed to free prisoners, what it’s designed to do is make sure that prisoners who are being held, have at least one shot to say, ‘I’m being held wrongly’.”

My quote, the point I was making and I’ve made before, is without giving full blown rights to those who are being held, we can set up a system of due process, and when I said that the administration didn’t even try to do that, what I have consistently said is that rather than figure out how do we effectively hold these folks, detain them, provide them with some due process, try them, lock them up, the administration decided to take a bunch of short cuts.”

“What it essentially wanted to do was to be completely inculcated from any checks and balances,” he continued. “And my position on this, and a whole host of other issues related to battling terrorism has always been clear. And that is that we don’t have to treat these folks as US citizens. We don’t have to treat them in the same way that we would treat a criminal suspect in the U.S., but we should abide by the Geneva conventions. We should at least follow through on the same principles we followed though when dealing with Nazis during Nuremburg, that is not only the right thing to do but it also actually will strengthen our ability over the long term to fight terrorism.”

Obama pooh-poohed those McCain allies making the charges against him, saying, “these are the same guys who helped to engineer the distraction of the war in Iraq at a time when we could’ve pinned down the people who actually committed 9/11. In part because of their failed strategies, we’ve got bin Laden still sending out audio tapes and so I don’t think they have much standing to suggest that they’ve learned a lot of lessons from 9/11.”

Obama said that “none of the folks that were speaking for McCain today have given us one bit of information that would suggest that as a consequence of the court’s ruling, terrorists will be able to attack America more effectively. … This is the same kind of fear mongering that got us into Iraq, that has caused us to be hugely distracted from the war we do have to fight against terrorism and it’s exactly that failed foreign policy that I want to reverse.”

At last — a Democratic candidate for president who is not afraid to say that the emperor has no clothes on.

Cross-posted at Liberty Street.

3 Responses to “One Tall Voice”

  1. Bryan says:

    In not being afraid to say that the emperor has no clothes on, did Obama bother to mention that the Supreme Court’s decision did not stymie the administration in particular but rather a bipartisan bill passed by Congress that provided for a form of due process?

    If I were to suggest that Obama’s positions are incoherent, will that mean that I am fearmongering and offering distractions instead of dealing with the issues?

  2. Kathy says:

    … did Obama bother to mention that the Supreme Court’s decision did not stymie the administration in particular but rather a bipartisan bill passed by Congress that provided for a form of due process?

    That “form of due process” allows hearsay evidence and evidence obtained through the use of torture. And the government decides how torture will be defined. Detainees are not allowed to call witnesses, refute the evidence presented against them, or even see any evidence the government does not want them to see. The Combatant Status Review Tribunals decide what evidence will be presented, how it will be presented, and what it says about the detainee’s status. There is no legitimate habeus corpus review — how can the same authority that put these detainees in Gitmo be the one to decide if the detention is legitimate? The same branch of government that put these men in Gitmo serves as legislator, judge, and jury. That is kangaroo court justice, which is no justice at all.

    The Supreme Court told the Bush administration to get legislation from Congress that fixed the problems with the military commissions; it did not tell the administration to create an unconstitutional law and then bar the judiciary from reviewing it.

  3. Bryan says:

    Kathy did not answer the question, unless I take her reply as an implicit “no.”

    Obama’s “backbone” amounts to pinning bipartisan legislation on the Bush administration. What a guy. Twelve of the 32 (at the time) Democratic senators voted for the bill.

    You can complain about the character of the “due process” all you like, Kathy. The real issue is whether or not the decision was well grounded in Constitutional law. It was not. The imperial Supreme Court majority, which has not yet had one of the major Constitutional checks applied to it (Congress delineating court jurisdiction) is trying to put itself in charge of U.S. conduct during wartime, in effect.

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