6.13.2008

McCain denounces Gitmo ruling, choosing once again to embrace Bush on national security (Updated)

By now, most everyone has heard about the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision to restore habeas corpus rights to the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, a ruling that strikes at the core of the Bush Administration's post-9/11 detention policies. Now, federal judges will have to determine whether each Gitmo detainee is being held lawfully, giving the prisoners their first chance to plead their case in a court and forcing the Administration to present some evidence that these men pose a security threat. As the Washington Post notes, even some Republicans have expressed skepticism about the limited amount of information the Administration has released up until now.

John McCain is certainly not one of those Republicans. While he has opposed other Republicans on the issue of torture (an issue that featured prominently in at least one GOP debate during which McCain expressed "astonishment" that Romney would not ban torture), he has been careful not to contest the Administration's doctrine of executive power and the rules surrounding Guantanamo. He recently made headlines by announcing that he would pursue Bush's policy on wiretapping, aligning himself with the president on one of the key controversies of his second term, and this despite statements in 2006 that implied he considered the NSA program unlawful. And yesterday, McCain denounced the Supreme Court ruling, declaring that "it obviously concerns me" because "these are unlawful combatants; they're not American citizens."

McCain's position put him at odds with Republicans such as Arlen Specter, who had sponsored a bill essentially saying what this ruling decided, and also with his opponent Barack Obama. The Democrat declared that "this is an important step toward re-establishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law" and used the opportunity to take a shot at McCain.

Just as he did over wiretapping and also over torture (as he moderated his anti-Administration position this spring), McCain has chosen to not put any room between him and the unpopular Bush presidency on an issue in which he could have easily gained a lot of attention had he chosen to oppose with the Administration. Given his past positions on some of these issues, it would not have been considered sheer opportunism for him to take an even stronger stance against wiretapping, for instance, and use that issue in the coming months to prove that his election would not simply represent a third term for Bush.

Given that the main obstacle to McCain's victory is Bush's dismal approval ratings and the GOP's badly damaged bran, the Senator's campaign knows very well how important it is for them to distance themselves from the president and there are some issues on which they are mounting a conscious effort to create some room between the two Republicans -- particularly on the environment. But will that be enough when the policies that are most emblematic of the Bush years concern national security and foreign policy? While McCain is identified as a staunch supporter of the Iraq War, he had an opportunity to seize non-Iraq issues to create at least the illusion of space -- but he has repeatedly chosen to embrace Bush tighter than he has.

What does this say about McCain's strategy? This is no longer the Republican primary during which McCain renounced some of his previous heretical positions or tried to explain them away in conservative terms (his opposition to Bush's tax cuts and his immigration stance, for instance). But McCain still has problems solidifying the base, as countless reports indicate that activists still distrust him. While that group does not necessarily make up great voting numbers, they sustain any campaign's enthusiasm and volunteer efforts, and this is not a group that contests the Bush Administration's national security policy. Even if some might regret the Iraq invasion, Bush is still credited with "having made us safe since 9/11." Given that McCain still needs to think about keeping his base happy and motivated, he cannot afford to distance himself from the Administration among issues conservatives feel no doubt about.

Second, McCain does not want to run a general election campaign focused on the economy but rather on national security. Indeed, Republicans think that Obama's most glaring vulnerability is his foreign policy inexperience and what they believe voters might consider to be a weak attitude towards the threats of the world. To achieve this, the GOP needs to portray as strong a contrast as possible, both to make its case that McCain would make Americans safe and Obama would weaken the country's security and because choosing to triangulate on matters like executive authority and Gitmo would remove those issues from the table as the press would report that there is a consensus between the candidates, choosing instead to focus on economic policy and on the Iraq War. Imagine how disastrous a formula that would be for the fall debates!

The McCain campaign is caught between three imperatives: it needs to distance itself from the Republican brand without alienating the base and without ceding any ground on what it believes to be its strongest issue, national security. For now, they have not been able to found a balance between those requirements, but that is not particularly surprising given how difficult it is to run as a Republican this year.

Update: In case there was any doubt as to McCain's position, the Senator upped his rhetoric today, calling yesterday's ruling "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country."

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7 Comments:

  • A big advantage that Obama has in this election is McCains 20+ years in the Senate. He has the same problem as Kerry had in 2004; that being "I was for the bill before he was against it." McCains pandering to the Republican (Bush) base while at the same time trying to appeal to moderates will be a highwire act worthy of the Great Wallendas. He seems to have a different position for every audience and this will surly be a problem as his stubborn nature won't allow him to admit an error.
    At some some point, maybe soon, the press will stop giving him a free ride on these conflicting positions and begin to question his confusing thought process.

    By Anonymous fritz, At 13 June, 2008 11:02  

  • McCain being a "maverick" can be a problem for him. The base may view him as too maverick and not vote for him and undecideds/independents may view him as not maverick enough and not vote for him. Therefore he could fall between the two groups. Bush at least had one group with him!

    By Anonymous Mike, At 13 June, 2008 11:23  

  • McCain is just too bizarre. Torture no, but indefinite detention without due process is good? Somehow I think he only takes stands that he knows the courts will not allow so he can fool his blind base. How is this guy even competitive? Oh yeah, we have Obama!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 13 June, 2008 13:37  

  • I'd run an ad saying McCain is such a maverick that he can take both sides of the same issue!

    Another amazing effort at obfuscation is McCain's "position" on whether the president can disregard Congressional limits on wiretapping. From Marty Lederman's June 6 post on balkinization.com, "So What Does John McCain Think of the President's Constitutional Authority to Violate FISA?":

    If one examines the entire series of statements, it soon becomes evident either that the Senator and his staff have no earthly idea what they're talking about or (more likely) that they are quite deliberately being as ambiguous, equivocal and contradictory as possible, so that they can embrace whichever view is politically expedient at any given time and with any given audience -- so that they can, for example, tell Charlie Savage that the President has no dictatorial constitutional power to disregard FISA, while at the same time reassuring the Republican base (i.e., the National Review) that, as President, McCain would scoff at statutes that get in his way.

    By Blogger dsimon, At 13 June, 2008 14:49  

  • I think this is a fascinating advantage for Obama. His biggest weakness against McCain is national security, even though he opposes the Iraq War. He can use McCain's staunch conservatism here to brand McCain as out of touch on his entire platform: national security. Obama can portray himself as someone who is going to return us to national security common sense, away from the neo-conservative dominance of the past few years. He can use this to springboard himself to new policy proposals aligned with this thinking about national security to show depth and contrasts to McCain's old ways that have not served us well these past years. Just a few thoughts.

    Poligeek88

    By Anonymous Poligeek88, At 13 June, 2008 19:02  

  • I'm no admirer of McCain, but this is an issue that only a modest segment of the voting public will react to, and that segment isn't likely to vote for McCain under any circumstances. I view this not as confusion but as a calculated move that will make the base happy without venturing into more volatile areas of broad voter concern, such as the foreclosure mess or health care. In the eyes of many voters, the fact that these people are in Gitmo is prima facie evidence of their guilt; they're getting a hearing under Administration rules; and this is 'further evidence that Volvo-driving Liberals have their priorities all wrong'. (Not my position - just paraphrasing how this will come out on talk radio.)

    Obama needs to respond of course, but if he does so, IMO he should package it with attacks on a broader front - say, health care or taxation - to paint a global picture of how out of touch McCain is.

    By Anonymous zoot, At 14 June, 2008 07:18  

  • I disagree a bit zoot. The way I see it, those voters who believe that "if the terrorists aren't terrorists, they wouldn't be in Gitmo" are already McCain voters, and won't look twice at Obama.

    I think the days of blind faith in the infallibility of this Administration to conduct the war are over for the majority of Americans. There are plenty of Liberian-minded voters out there to whom the values of the Constitution are sacrosanct. Quite a few of these are some of those "disaffected Republicans" we've heard so much about. Many of them have already become Obamacons.

    McCain is playing to his "base" (and I put that in quotes because I feel that it's a noisy but increasingly shrinking group) by pushing this argument as forcefully as he's tried to so far, but he does it at his peril. His goal is to bait Obama into "sticking up for the dirty terrorists", but this decision went all the way to the Supreme Court -- and lost -- for a reason. It wasn't just opposed by Congress or killed in some committee. It was rejected by the Supreme Court, and I think many reasonable constitutionally minded voters who still have respect for the Courts and the rule of law understand that.

    McCain's position has given Obama room to make this a referendum on whether John McCain respects the basic tenets of our Constitution, which is a lose for McCain as it invariably cuts into his support with little opportunity cost for the Democrats. Plus, it's a way for Obama to bring up the topic of the makeup of the Supreme Court without explicitly hitting the hot-button abortion issue, which is another win for Democrats.

    At worst, it's an opening for Barr to bleed support from the Repulican ticket and yet another way to overtly tie McCain to Bush. All in all, I feel this was a tactical mistake for the McCain camp.

    By Anonymous dannity, At 15 June, 2008 11:21  

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