Senate Democrats' overwhelming rejection of the White House plan to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay marks the official beginning of the 2010 election season, in which some Democrats will find it necessary to separate themselves from the popular president. Terrified of looking weak to the electorate, Democrats reverted to their natural state of panicked defensiveness when confronted with GOP criticism on issues of national security.
There is much to lament in this development. The 90-to-6 rejection of the president's request for $80 million to close Gitmo by next January has all the hallmarks of the nervous, small-bore, cover-your-ass politics that will come to dominate the national debate as we get closer to the 2010 midterms -- and pandering is never pretty. But the vote may reveal a certain salutary independence from the White House among congressional Democrats that will, in the end, serve the country and the Obama administration well. The rejection made the president justify his policy, prompting him to explain in extraordinary detail his thinking regarding Gitmo and to discuss how the United States should proceed with its fight against international terrorism, in a speech at the National Archives yesterday:
"The problem of what to do with Guantánamo detainees was not caused by my decision to close the facility; the problem exists because of the decision to open Guantánamo in the first place," Barack Obama said. "As president, I refuse to allow this problem to fester. Our security interests won't permit it. Our courts won't allow it. And neither should our conscience."
But sensing vulnerability on the issue, congressional Democrats used the ruse of cutting off money needed for prison closure as a way to look tough and confrontational with their own leader. It was a cheap, meaningless stunt that did not cast those Democrats in the best light, especially given their continued insistence that they still support the president's goal of shutting down Gitmo. But push-back from Capitol Hill, even when the motives are politically questionable, may be exactly what the president needs to protect himself from the ideological and arrogant overreaching that doomed the Bush presidency -- and the Republican Party with it.
Despite the cheesy political maneuvering that inspired the Senate vote and the House one that preceded it, the president needs to know that he is dealing with a Democratic Congress that has interests different from his own. Maybe this will be a Congress that takes seriously its responsibility to govern, sometimes independently of what the administration wants. There used to be names for this -- checks and balances, oversight.
In this latest dustup over Gitmo, senators demanded a plan explaining how the administration will deal with the 240 detainees left after the prison's closure. It's a fair question that deserves an answer that will put the Republican crazy talk in some context.
The president would have helped himself politically if, in advance of the vote, he had given the Democrats some kind of narrative to combat the Republican hysteria. Now, he must work to recover and continue to explain his position. That is not a bad thing. He began that process Thursday by forcefully restating his opposition to Gitmo: "The existence of Guantánamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained. The record is clear: Rather than keep us safer, the prison at Guantánamo has weakened American national security. It is a rallying cry for our enemies."
In the aftermath of the Senate vote, Obama went on the offensive, speaking out against his Republican critics and the general political panic campaign that threatens his Guantánamo plans. "I have no interest in spending our time re-litigating the policies of the last eight years," he said. "We will be ill-served by some of the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue. Listening to the recent debate, I've heard words that are calculated to scare people rather than educate them; words that have more to do with politics than protecting our country."
The president is a serious and thoughtful man. A similarly serious and thoughtful -- if not always cooperative -- Democratic majority could help him avoid some of the troubles that afflicted George W. Bush. Beginning in 2001, Capitol Hill Republicans were so invested in Bush's success that they immediately shirked their traditional congressional responsibility to challenge the White House and to help it shape better policy.
If the president's party has a controlling congressional majority, it is incumbent on that majority to, on occasion, save the president from himself -- and in the case of Bush, to save the country from his mistakes. That did not happen. So eager to take advantage of what they saw as a rare opportunity to advance their conservative agenda after Bush's victory in 2000, congressional Republicans abdicated the traditional institutional role of acting as a check on the administration. Instead, the GOP became a spineless enabler of all things Bush. From tax cuts to war to Social Security reform -- whatever the White House wanted, Republicans supported. Ultimately, it cost them at the polls in 2006 and 2008.
In their landmark 2006 study of the role of Congress -- The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track -- political scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein noted the partisan approach to oversight that the GOP adopted after it took control of the Congress in 1994, and they studied how that approach manifested itself differently during the Clinton years versus the Bush years. In hindsight, the approach the Republican Party took with Bush was to his disadvantage:
When the Republicans took control of Congress, there was substantial aggressive oversight -- for the period when Bill Clinton was president, that is -- although the oversight of policy was accompanied by a near-obsession with investigation of scandal and allegations of scandal. But when George Bush became president, oversight largely disappeared. From homeland security to the conduct of the war in Iraq, from the torture issue uncovered by the Abu Ghraib revelations to the performance of the IRS, Congress has mostly ignored its responsibilities."
This was the great GOP sin for which they are paying a very high price. It is also a lesson that Democrats should keep in mind. For Congress to insist that the president rigorously explain and defend his thinking and his action is almost always a good idea -- even if he's your president and you agree with him, and even if you're doing it as a cheap political cop-out.