Obama’s neglect of civil liberties disheartening
I am going to vote for Obama on November 4, and I suspect most of my readers will also. But my vote will not be cast with the enthusiasm that I would have predicted several months ago.
Throughout his campaign, Obama’s core message has been that he will change Washington—a pledge that has seemed hollow, vacuous or downright disingenuous to some (why doesn’t he solve world hunger and reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity while he’s at it?). Undoubtedly, Obama’s rhetoric has been excessively grandiose at times, leaving one to feel skeptical that he would fulfill his pledges.
Still, there seemed to be a grain of important truth to what Obama had been saying. Obama seemed willing and able to catalyze racial reconciliation and seemed especially reluctant to resort to the petty and cynical tactics that pollute our political discourse.
But above all, Obama seemed unwilling to allow Republicans to frame the debates on foreign policy and civil liberties the way they have so effectively during the last eight years. Rather than cowering in fear in usual Democratic fashion at Republican accusations of being “soft on terror” or unpatriotic, Obama confidently and consistently asserted his opposition to the Iraq war and unconstitutional warrantless wiretapping, and dismissed the slights against his patriotism for the self-evident absurdities they are.
These promising signs, combined with his experience as a constitutional law professor, had led me to hope that the Bush administration’s contempt for civil liberties and the rule of law—the most radical aspect of Bush’s policies—would be a central issue in this campaign.
Needless to say, Obama has let me down. After promising not to support any bill that would expand Bush’s domestic surveillance powers or immunize the telecoms that enabled these abuses, he proceeded to do exactly that. He cast his vote along with every single Senate Republican, many of whom publicly mocked the Democratic majority in Congress for delivering them a bill that exceeded their wildest expectations. And ever since, most conspicuously at the Democratic Convention, the lawlessness of the Bush administration has gone largely unmentioned.
Please don’t let me be misunderstood here—I agree that, in their lists of preferred policies, Obama and his surrogates have occasionally mentioned the abuses of power of the Bush administration. But this—treating the systematic dismantling of the carefully restricted and balanced powers of our government as merely one more plank in the Democratic platform—is precisely the problem.
In the last eight years, Bush has institutionalized the practice of torture in our military and the CIA. He has claimed the right to wiretap the phone conversations and e-mails of American citizens with no oversight of any kind, even the minimal rubber-stamping of the FISA court, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Most terrifying of all, Bush has claimed (and exercised, in the case of José Padilla) the right to arbitrarily arrest and indefinitely imprison any American citizen for any reason, with no way for the suspects to challenge their imprisonment. And he justifies these claims by way of a permanent war with no clear objectives or conceivable path to victory. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. War is Peace.
These issues are not good-faith policy disagreements between reasonable parties, to be handled in the usual democratic fashion. They are fundamental issues about the nature of liberal democracy that should not be controversial, least of all in the shining beacon of freedom that America purports to be. Disagreements about tax policy, immigration, or health care are simply not in the same league as the writ of habeas corpus.
In a perfect and rational world, I would love for Obama to scream this from the hilltops from now until November. In the real world, however, politics is the art of the possible, and Obama should not make the perfect the enemy of the good. He should continue to hammer away at the Republicans on the economy if that is what it takes for him to win. But to continue to ignore the lawlessness of the Bush administration as he and the Democrats have so far would be inexcusable.
President Bush is fond of deflecting any questioning of his radical policies by claiming that his fundamental duty is to protect the American people. He is dead wrong. Every president in the history of the United States has made one and only one oath upon entering office, and that is to protect the Constitution. Obama (and the rest of us) would do well to remember this fact.