Saturday, December 20, 2008


In The Washington Post, Ruth Marcus defends Ronald Reagan's pardon of the late Mark Felt (Watergate's Deep Throat) for authorizing warrantless searches of the homes of people who knew members of the Weather Underground. Marcus looks at this in the context of how Bush-era torture and illegal surveillance might be dealt with once Bush is out of office; she says,

In the current unspooling, I unexpectedly find myself more in the camp of Reagan....

This infuriates Glenn Greenwald, who denounces "the Washington establishment," and matttbastard at Comments from Left Field, who blames "Beltway inertia."

Glenn is right, obviously, when he says this:

If ... -- as Marcus and so many other urge -- we hold political leaders harmless when they break the law, if we exempt them from punishment under the criminal law, then what possible reason would they have from refraining from breaking the law in the future?

But if Glenn and Matt think this attitude is being imposed on an enraged public, I think they haven't been paying attention.

I'm looking at the Pew Research Center's report on public opinion about President Bush throughout his term. It's an ugly picture for Bush -- but although anxiety about the civil-liberties aspects of Bush's policies has increased as Bush has approached the end of his time in office, it's still not a mass phenomenon:

According to Pew's report:

In a February 2008 survey, more people (47%) said their greater concern about U.S. anti-terrorism policies was that they had not gone far enough to adequately protect the country than said the policies had gone too far in restricting civil liberties (36%). In August 2006, 55% said their greater concern was that the policies had not gone far enough, compared to 26% who worried about restrictions on civil liberties.

... public attitudes regarding other anti-terrorism policies remained divided and highly partisan. In February 2008, a narrow majority (52%) said it is right for the government to monitor the communications of Americans suspected of having ties to terrorists, without first getting court permission; 44% said this practice is generally wrong.

In that survey, more than half of Americans (52%) said that the government's policies toward the prisoners housed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are fair, while a third said they are unfair. Again, the views were highly partisan. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans (73%) believed that U.S. policies toward these prisoners were fair, and only 13% said the policies were unfair. By contrast, nearly half of Democrats (47%) said the policies were unfair, while 39% said these policies are fair.

The overall willingness to balance priorities when dealing with terror threats could be tied to widespread perceptions that terrorists are still capable of striking within the United States. In February 2008, 57% said the ability to pull off such a strike is the same or greater than on Sept. 11. In August 2002, about six-in-ten (61%) said that capability was either the same or greater than in 2001.

The problem isn't just that Bushies and Beltway insiders have defended these policies -- it's that the public has bought the defense.

I don't think it's enough to say, "These things are illegal. We must punish law-breaking." I think progressives simply haven't done a good enough job of countering the Beltway/Bushie argument that the rules must be bent and dirty deeds must be done or we're all going to die. To far too much of the public that's still persuasive, and looking the other way seems the right thing to do so the kids can sleep safely in their beds at night.

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