The Republicans in Congress made a splash today, taking on the president’s conduct on the war on terror with a multi-pronged media attack. They think they have found a chink in Barack Obama’s armor: he has turned national security into a series of PR stunts. Emboldened by polling data showing that the president’s moves to shut Guantanamo and potentially investigate and prosecute Bush administration officials for formulating interrogation techniques are unpopular, they are beginning to sound the alarm and take on the president directly.
Minority Leader John Boehner and Pete Hoekstra, ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, have turned out a new video. “Do you feel safer?” they ask. The message is simple: releasing the CIA interrogation memos, halting enhanced interrogation techniques, and shutting Guantanamo without a viable alternative facility for the terrorists may please the Left, but do not enhance national security.
This comes at a time when Attorney General Eric Holder is in Europe trolling for offers to take the Guantanamo terrorists off our hands. So far only Britain and France have taken any (one each), although Holder seemed sunny about the prospects that others will step forward. Even more startling, Holder did not rule out assisting European governments in their prosecution of former Bush officials, as the Washington Post reported:
Holder did not rule it out. “Obviously, we would look at any request that would come from a court in any country and see how and whether we should comply with it,” he said. “This is an administration that is determined to conduct itself by the rule of law.”
All of that was too much for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who took to the Senate floor today, declaring:
It’s clear from these remarks that the administration is putting symbolism ahead of safety. This becomes even more apparent from Attorney General Holder’s admission that closing Guantanamo will be ‘one of the most daunting challenges’ he will face. He clearly realizes what most Americans realize: closing Guantanamo is not a good option if no safe alternatives exist.
[T]he Attorney General was asked in Berlin if any of the detainees could be put up in hotels. According to the Associated Press report on the meeting, the Attorney General joked that, quote, “hotels might be a possibility, it depends on where the hotel is.”
Holder’s cavalier attitude wasn’t well received by McConnell, who added:
The question of where the terrorists at Guantanamo will be sent is no joking matter, Mr. President — and the administration needs to tell the American people how it will keep the terrorists at Guantanamo out of our neighborhoods and off of the battlefield. It’s one thing not to have a plan, it’s another to joke about not having one.
While the economy remains front-and-center for most Americans, these and other Republicans are banking on the fact that the more the public hears about the specific policies the president is pursuing, the more they will become concerned. Moreover, the Republicans clearly see that their House and Senate Democratic colleagues may have run into a cul-de-sac on national security.
Talk of a “truth commission” has been nothing short of a debacle for Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The story has migrated from “Did the Bush administration torture people?” to “Are Democrats playing hypocritical games with national security?” Judging from Pelosi’s brisk retreat from the truth commission idea, it appears that the latter story is toxic to her party.
Whether the Republicans’ offensive succeeds may turn on two factors. First, will sober-minded Democrats get queasy with the president’s approach and transform the message from a purely partisan one to a bipartisan effort to rein in the administration? The closing of Guantanamo and the potential release of detainees into the U.S. is not one Democrats are likely to be able to duck. However, they have to date been rather mute, hoping the headlines will vanish and the Obama administration will curb its zeal to appeal to the MoveOn.org crowd.
By highlighting this issue, Republicans hope to force Democrats to step forward. And that in turn may pressure the administration (which seems exquisitely attuned to politics) to return to a more sober approach on the war on terror.
Second, Republicans’ success will turn on devising a message that is sharp enough to penetrate the media din but not too partisan to turn off moderate and independent voters. The president personally and (to the dismay of conservatives) his world “outreach” tour remain popular with voters. So Republicans likely will make the most impact by sticking to the specific policies rather than roaming through the panoply of conservative complaints about Obama’s entire approach to foreign policy.
The bottom line: Republicans are betting that Obama’s national security approach is far less popular than he is with ordinary voters. They will do everything they can to make sure the public knows just what Obama is up to. If they succeed, it will once again demonstrate that governing is far tougher than campaigning.