A number of Republicans have pointed to this Rasmussen poll showing a majority of Americans would want the alleged underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab waterboarded as proof that the GOP is "winning" the national security debate. Certainly American acceptance of torture has increased over time, but I suspect that has more to do with, now that Bush is out of office, being able to embrace torture openly -- rather than having to sound ambivalent or dissemble about whether waterboarding is torture. There's a moral clarity to their positions now.
I suspect that there are some Democrats who feel as though the Republicans have some kind of inherent strategic political advantage in acting "tough" even if that means pushing for policies that are blatantly illegal. I disagree, I think that Republicans are at a huge strategic disadvantage given their actual record on national security.
During the last administration, the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil occurred, despite some forewarning. The Bush administration then failed to capture the leadership of the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks, allowing Osama bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora. Then, they manipulated the American people into supporting the invasion of a country completely unrelated to the terrorist group that attacked the United States, granting al-Qaeda a considerable propaganda victory as well as a second front where their adherents could gain combat experience. This focus of resources and attention on a country unrelated to the fight against al-Qaeda led to the Taliban regaining the strategic initiative in Afghanistan, the single biggest factor in producing what may be an indefinite American military presence there. The prison created by the Bush administration to hold suspected terrorists features prominently in the promotional materials terrorists use to swell their numbers. The current centerpiece of the GOP's national security policy vision is a crime under domestic and international law, one that their own dream presidential candidate has said helps al-Qaeda win more recruits to their cause. The torture wing of the GOP wants to turn the United States into the kind of country it would want the U.S. to invade. That doesn't sound very appealing to me.
I suspect that there are more than a few Republicans who would prefer to be holding different cards. But despite a catastrophically bad record on national security, they seem to be winning the public-opinion war, if only because they have developed an emotionally strong (if rather appalling) moral case for their approach.
The Democrats, by contrast, have all but abandoned moral arguments on national security -- in part because, given the continuity between the policies of the past administration and this one, it's hard to develop one.
On the issue of torture there's still an opportunity for genuine contrast, but the Democrats have failed to make a strong case. That's not because they lack the courage of their convictions; it's that they lack both courage and convictions. Most Democrats apparently saw torture as something they could bloody Bush over, rather than as a moral outrage that jeopardizes our national security and corrupts the most basic institutions of democracy, which is why they're at a loss for words trying to counter the GOP's pro-torture demagoguery. It's not as though they lack for prominent voices with military and national security experience. They're just too weak to stand up for the ideals they've chosen -- as a result, they've essentially forfeited an argument that would be possible to win.
-- A. Serwer