a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

On the table, off the table

Posted by Thomas Nephew on October 24th, 2006

I was very pleasantly surprised last month by Senator Hillary Clinton’s stand on the Military Commissions Act. It wasn’t so much her “Nay” vote, which to her credit and the Democratic Party’s was the same as three quarters of the other Democratic Senators. But her speech on the Senate floor seemed to show a real understanding of what was at stake and a real commitment to human rights and the best elements of the American legal tradition:

Once again, there are those who are willing to stay a course that is not working, giving the Bush-Cheney Administration a blank check — a blank check to torture, to create secret courts using secret evidence, to detain people, including Americans, to be free of judicial oversight and accountability, to put our troops in greater danger. […]

This bill would not only deny detainees habeas corpus rights — a process that would allow them to challenge the very validity of their confinement — it would also deny these rights to lawful immigrants living in the United States. If enacted, this law would give license to this Administration to pick people up off the streets of the United States and hold them indefinitely without charges and without legal recourse.

Unfortunately, she basically equivocated about the torture issue in a discussion with the New York Daily Post in mid-October. Ben Smith:

She was asked about the “ticking time bomb” scenario, in which you’ve captured the terrorist and don’t have time for a normal interrogation, and said that there is a place for what she called “severity,” in a conversation that included mentioning waterboarding, hypothermia, and other techniques commonly described as torture.

“I have said that those are very rare but if they occur there has to be some lawful authority for pursuing that,” she responded. “Again, I think the President has to take responsibil[i]ty. There has to be some check and balance, some reporting. I don’t mind if it’s reporting in a top secret context. But that shouldn’t be the tail that wags the dog, that should be the exception to the rule.”

Asked again about these methods, she said:

“In those instances where we have sufficient basis to believe that there is something imminent, yeah, but then we’ve got to have a check and balance.”

Now there’s some imprecision in Smith’s account; read closely, it seems more likely that Hillary Clinton didn’t specifically condone waterboarding etcetera than that she did — or Smith would have reported it that way. And as I argued in a comment about a post by Jim Henley about it, this sets her response to a highly hypothetical variant of the torture issue — the “ticking time bomb” scenario — against her actual vote on the MCA bill.

But the disappointing point remains: something “severe” is on the table for Senator Clinton that ought to be off it, and she seems to support (or let herself be cornered into supporting) a Dershowitzian “as long as there’s a legal warrant for it” approach to something that ought to be firmly rejected. By bringing something reprehensible inside the law, you make it more routine and more likely; Henley may well be right that that’s an occupational disease of politicians in high places, even if the charge in the case of the torture/habeas bill seems rather more fairly leveled against Bush and Cheney, Frist and McCain, and Hastert, Duncan and Sensenbrenner than against Clinton.

By contrast, potential House speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she wants to rule out a perfectly legitimate, literally constitutional course of action for the country and its Congress. Speaking with Lesley Stahl on CBS “60 Minutes” this weekend, she said “impeachment is off the table… Making [Bush and Cheney] lame ducks is good enough for me.”

Well, that isn’t good enough for me or for a lot of other people working their butts off even more than I am to elect Democrats to Congress. Bush, Cheney, and their co-conspirators should be investigated, that is, compelled by subpoena to testify under oath about being international human rights scofflaws and for deceiving a nation into a war we didn’t need to fight. And if the process leads that way they should be impeached and/or otherwise punished for the good of the country.

Steve Benen points out that those of us who feel this way are not some “fringe” element: 28% of Americans support impeachment, and another 23% say it should be a priority if not the top priority — which to me is at least “on the table.” As Booman says, This better be just some talk to defuse GOP talking points in the lead-up to the election, because taking impeachment off the table should never happen for any President, ever. It’s part of the constitution for a reason. “

I’m inclined to a (somewhat) charitable view of Pelosi and Clinton’s thinking. There’s much that’s good about both; I particularly welcome Pelosi’s pledge to have a fairer, more open Congress, and Clinton’s initiatives trying to find common ground between pro-life and pro-choice advocates, i.e., fewer unwanted pregnancies. But I think maybe they’ve still internalized the Republican jibes at leading Democrats of the past many years: soft on terror, equivocal on national security, etcetera, etcetera. They seem to all but flinch at being accused of being too partisan, at being out of step with the country.

And yet here they are, on the verge of victory upon a tidal wave of revulsion at the “stay the corrupt, immoral course” Republican Party. I hope that on further reflection, these two decent, patriotic, capable people and their fellow leading Democrats will trust the very evidence of the elections and realize who is and is not “out of step.” I hope that they’ll look into their own hearts and heed the calls of their own consciences, and will work to undo the human rights setbacks perpetrated by their opponents. Leave the moral swamps of torture and corruption to the party of the Grotesque Old Perverts; the rest of us can again try to make America a city on the hill, our values guiding us to greater, not lesser security.

Today I’m going to go ahead and put in for taking Election Day off to help Democrats win. I look at it as prepping in the kitchen and setting the table at this point: I may not have much of an impact on the precise 2007 menu any more, but I’m still hopeful the new cooks in the kitchen will eventually prepare the right courses. Otherwise it’s two more years of elephant dung.

3 Responses to “On the table, off the table”

  1. anonymousgf Says:

    I think Nancy Pelosi is right about impeachment.
    Beside any substantive argument I could make–our side won’t have the votes to make it happen. Which means it’s a waste of our political and intellectual resources.
    There’s another election two years after this one. That’s the normal constitutional means for throwing the bums out.
    Sorry to be disagreeable. I always appreciate the work you do here.
    And I can’t wait to vote!

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Nothing disagreeable there, I can take it. I just think the bums will be “retired out” in 2 years, not “thrown out,” and that doesn’t quite do the trick for me.
    Mainly, I want backward-looking investigations with subpoena power; if they don’t lead to impeachment proceedings when all is said and done, I could probably accept that. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
    If new smoking gun malfeasance is uncovered, there might be a different political equation as the Hagels, Snowes, et al start to reconsider their own positions. IIRC, by the time Nixon resigned, there were credible Republican votes to threaten impeachment; the party line wall had to be and was breached.

  3. » Blog Archive » Impeachment is patriotic: Takoma Park July 4th Says:

    […] Pelosi’s ears (figuratively speaking!); while she famously claimed impeachment was “off the table” before last year’s general election, I hope her own outrage over the Libby commutation […]

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