Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Rachel Maddow said this last night (video below) -- and I think she's really off base about some of it:

In a political development that no one could have predicted while he was still vice president, Dick Cheney is now sort of the biggest A-list Republican talking head anywhere in the country. And because the source of his sudden interest in talking to the media appears to be his desire to defend himself on the issue of torture, torture is what America is talking about. Any message the Republican Party might wish to distribute about itself is being overshadowed by what their big kahuna wants to be talking about. Anytime another A-list or B-list Republican speaks these days, the thing they're asked about is torture. The Obama administration expressly didn't want to spend all of this time talking about torture but, thanks to Cheney's remarkable media tour, the issue of torture won't get off the agenda.

So this was not the game plan for either the Democratic White House or for congressional Republicans, who probably can guess that spending all their time defending torture will not be their way back to the majority in 2010. So, weirdly, we're in this remarkable situation in which, if there do end up being prosecutions for torture or disbarments or impeachment or even a truth commission, or even if we just keep talking about it every single day, civil libertarians may have to thank Dick Cheney and his compulsion to keep defending himself in public.

First of all, I'm not sure "torture is what America is talking about" (a lot of America is talking about Carrie Prejean, or that American Idol guy with the semi-emo hair). But to the extent that it's true, does it really hurt the GOP?

Maddow thinks Cheney's tour is burying any potentially appealing message the Republicans might deliver. That presupposes that such a message might exist. The reality is that current GOP officeholders and GOP presidential wannabes aren't connecting with anything, except among the base, and guardians of conservative correctness within the party smack down anyone who makes even a faltering effort to do outreach (see: Limbaugh and the pizza parties).

So, for Republicans, why not this? Remember, it's hard to get the American public fully exercised about evils done in the name of national security, because there's always a lingering fear that these are just the dirty things we have to do because there are really, really evil superpredators out there with superpowers, commies or jihadists or whoever. We didn't impeach Nixon for war crimes. We didn't punish Reagan for Iran-contra. Bush and Cheney got off scot-free.

The latest CNN poll says a majority of people don't want Congress or an independent panel to investigate Bush interrogation policies, and show that, by a 50%-46% margin, Americans approve of using the Bush administration's interrogation techniques. In the latest Pew poll, a plurality agreed that "torture to gain important information from suspected terrorists is justified" "often" or "sometimes."

So, if you're a Republican, why not back off and let Cheney hijack the news cycle? It can't be any worse for Republicans than the other things they've been doing -- and it's clear that the public has shown great resistance to anti-torture outrage. "The Obama administration expressly didn't want to spend all of this time talking about torture"? That might not be just because Obama wants to put other items on the agenda. It might be a legitimate fear of how this discussion might play out with the public.

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