WASHINGTON – Democrats just can't seem to get on the same page on national security — and it could cost them dearly on an issue Republicans have dominated for decades.
Increasingly, President Barack Obama and Democrats who run Congress are being pulled between the competing interests of party liberals and the rest of the country on Bush-era wartime matters of torture, detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists.
The Democratic Party's struggle over how to position itself on these issues is threatening to overshadow Obama's ambitious plans for energy, education and health care. It's also keeping the country looking backward on the eight years of George W. Bush's presidency, much to the chagrin of the new White House. And, it's creating an opening for an out-of-power GOP in an area where Democrats have made inroads.
Governing from the center and backtracking on a previous position, Obama decided this past week to fight the release of photos that show U.S. troops abusing prisoners. The president said he feared the pictures would "further inflame anti-American opinion" and endanger U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Then he decided to resume military tribunals for some Guantanamo detainees after a temporary suspension. "This is the best way to protect our country, while upholding our deeply held values," he said.
The developments riled liberals who are important campaign-year foot soldiers and fundraisers.
"These recent decisions are disheartening," said Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union. "He has shown backbone on some issues and not on others."
On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi protected the party's left flank by accusing the CIA of lying to her about the agency's use of a form of simulated drowning on suspected terrorists. "We were told that waterboarding was not being used," said Pelosi, D-Calif. "And we now know that earlier they were." The CIA disputes Pelosi's account.
As Democrats splintered, Republicans watched with glee.
The irony is these are the same wartime issues created by Bush and the GOP-led Congress that Democrats successfully campaigned against in 2006 and 2008. The conflicting Democratic positions threaten to undercut the party's gains on national security; polls last fall showed Democrats had drawn even on national security issues long dominated by the GOP.
The White House desperately wants to get Democrats in Congress focused on the president's priorities. Obama's team has made it clear it's not eager to retread the past. But House and Senate liberals, prodded by a vocal and active network of grass-roots and "netroots" supporters, relish doing just that, seemingly fixated on how Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney handled Iraq and terrorism.
And it's the popular new president who may have the most to lose.
Obama is facing the same predicament that confronted and confounded other recent Democratic presidents. While governing as centrists, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter bent over backward on issues of war and peace, working to appease the party's left wing without being held hostage by it.
Defeated Democratic nominees — John Kerry in 2004, Al Gore in 2000, Michael Dukakis in 1988 — lost in part because Republicans successfully tagged them as soft on security.
Obama appears to be trying for a balance between keeping campaign promises to reverse Bush policies and protecting national security.
Overall, Obama seems less willing to systematically overturn Bush's national security positions than his domestic policies.
There are signs that making good on his promise to close Guantanamo in his first year is proving exceedingly difficult. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder reassured lawmakers that the administration would not release Guantanamo prisoners into U.S. neighborhoods.
In blogs and on cable TV, Democratic critics griped that Obama was appearing more like Bush than the Democrat who won the nomination by rallying liberals around his pledge to end the Iraq war quickly.
Answering liberal complaints, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said: "First and foremost, the president does what is in the best security interest of the United States."
Obama is betting that liberals will forgive him for changing course on these issues. He does have several years to make it up to them before his likely re-election campaign.
Conversely, Obama may have further endeared himself to moderates and independents who are more hawkish on national security and are important to his winning coalition. It's also possible that conservative Republicans may now be more open to dealing with him because of his moves on security issues.
With those actions, Obama may have undercut Cheney's complaint that the Democrat's policies were endangering the country. The president also may have insulated himself from further weak-on-security attacks following a campaign during which skeptics questioned his readiness to lead the military in wartime.
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