Democrats have proven yet again that their strategy of waiting for Republicans to mess up even more is not sustainable. If Republicans lose control in the House of Representatives or the Senate this November, it will not come on the coattails of Democratic senators’ handling of the Detainee Bill. Although the Democrats’ lack of participation in the details of the bill is more symbolic than anything else, it represents a lost opportunity on an issue that Democrats squandered by letting Republicans define the terms.
On Thursday, the Senate’s 65-34 vote approved a broad set of rules by which to try terrorism detainees. The bill’s most salient feature strips detainees of the habeas corpus right to challenge their detentions in court. While it makes illegal several “grave breaches” of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions — 57-year-old standards of international law — including torture, rape and murder, it also allows the president to establish the specific interrogation techniques. This bill, the same one the House passed on Wednesday, came in response to a June Supreme Court decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld stating that the Bush administration must meet the standards of the Geneva Conventions.
Most voters will pay attention to the vote itself, as legislators up for reelection jockey to define their stances on national security. Democrats who voted against the bill hope it will send a message to voters that they are being tough on a president who lied his way into an unpopular war, and Republicans who voted for the bill hope to demonstrate that they have given the president the necessary tools to fight terror.
What most voters will miss, though, is the conspicuous lack of Democratic power brokers behind the bill’s negotiation. They were all Republican senators: John McCain, John Warner and Lindsey Graham. Granted, one would be hard-pressed to find more qualified members of Congress to define the United States’ terrorism rules: McCain is a Vietnam War veteran who chose to stay with his men as a prisoner of war despite having had the opportunity to leave; Warner is a World War II veteran and a former secretary of the Navy; Graham is a reserve judge on the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals.
But the problem with the lack of Democratic voice in defining the terms of the law is that it sends a false message to on-the-fence voters that Republicans have an internal watchdog structure in place. It assures undecided Americans that they can vote Republican legislators back in with confidence, since they will be able to keep in check a president with a psychotic view of his executive powers.
This is not the message Democrats should be letting Republicans send. Republicans are not in control of their party’s leader. Many Republicans voted in support of the bill despite misgivings because they felt pressured into supporting the president. Others expect the Supreme Court will strike down this legislation as too broad, sending it right back to Congress. Accordingly, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said of his vote in support of the bill, “We should have done it right, because we’re going to have to do it again.” How could someone say such a thing and then vote in favor of the bill anyway? This is not the kind of senator who will stand up to the president.
Symbolically, at least, Democrats have really bungled this one. Their voice was absent when it mattered most, defining the terms of the bill, and was present when it mattered least, decrying the bill’s broad expansion of executive power. They look reactionary and whiny, as they always do, allowing the president to hammer Democrats on Thursday in Birmingham for their “endless second-guessing.”
Democrats’ best hope in November is that the average voter will be blinded by the president’s low poll numbers and not pay attention to the subtle distinctions separating Republican from Democrat. But for those of us who noticed the missed opportunity, it is quite worrying.
Steven Engler is a senior in Saybrook College.