Monday, March 09, 2009

Why Release the Bush Memos Now?

By John S. Wilson

This is political hardball at its finest. Obama's poll numbers are high - mid 60s or so - but that does not mean he isn't interested in shoring up more support. And there's only two ways he can do that: make people love him more or miss his predecessor less. Long ago Obama mastered the former, and he's attempting to become an expert on the latter - especially where two groups are concerned - moderates and libertarians.

Recently, additional Bush terror memos were released. They were authored by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), principally by John Yoo, then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General and current professor at Berkeley Law School, and go to extreme lengths to route ever-expanding powers to the executive branch. One of the memos asserts this among other things: (1) the First Amendment's guarantees of speech and press could legally be subordinated to military exigency and, (2) the Posse Comitatus Act, which forbids use of the military on domestic soil, would not apply (hence why only national guard troops are used during emergencies, and under state authority ). Such memos were reasoned so poorly that recently departed OLC head, Steven G. Bradbury, disowned them in two memos he wrote before leaving office in January.

They are a great read, but why stir all this up now? Because while it's uncouth to kick a man while he's down, if warranted, friends and underlings are socially accepted substitutes. These memos have long coalesced contempt among moderates, libertarians and, even some conservatives (notably, Colin Powell) who lost favor with not only the Bush Administration but the neoconservatives within the movement as well. America is a moral nation. Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp, Rendition (the practice of exporting suspects to countries that willingly torture them), Abu Ghraib, Warrantless wiretapping - all of these struck a chord because they violated our most basic principles and liberties. And every time we are reminded of the dastardly deeds that took place on Bush's watch - we're reminded of who was making the mess and who is now cleaning it up.

To be sure, moderates and libertarians weren't rushing to support the recently passed American Recovery Act (colloquially known as the stimulus package). Moderates want a little less government spending, and libertarians want a lot less, especially where the the federal government is concerned. But both camps also value less military intervention abroad, a plan to reduce the deficit, a reliable but moral apparatus to fight terrorism and an increased American moral standing in the world. Obama seeks to accomplish all of these things with plans to wind down the Iraq war in the summer of 2010; halving the deficit by 2012; closing Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp within the year; and pressing the "reset " button on negotiations with Iran, Russia and China. Administrations' political victories are always contextual (the world before them vs. the world after them), and Obama is bookended by how the public perceives Bush's legacy and what they perceive America should be.

Obama is strategically engineering for the long haul. Shoring up support amongst moderates and libertarians leads to more political capital, higher likelihood of increased congressional seats come midterm elections next year, and increased corrosiveness in the republican machinery; and it's a good thing oil is cheap, because republicans are going to need a lot more of it to get the transmission running smooth again.

~John attends Virginia Commonwealth University with a triple major in economics, sociology, and women's studies. He blogs at
Policy Diary and Hip-Hop and serves as a regular contributor to PolicyNet, where he writes about domestic and foreign affairs. He recently served as a legislative fellow in the office of the Honorable David Englin (D) of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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