The Obama Administration is Losing a Lot of Arguments.


Obama meets with "moderate" Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who attacked the Obama administration's national security policies over the weekend.

On Sunday, Ezra Klein noted that Obama "lost the argument" with the GOP when it comes to economics. Despite being right about the fact that the government needs to spend during a recession to offset the anxious frugality of individuals and private industry, the administration has now "bowed before the entrenched, incorrect, conventional wisdom" that government should "tighten its belt" just like a family does. Personally, I don't know any family that can simply say certain bills don't count when it comes time to do the tightening, but that's tangential.

Klein notes that the administration found it hard to defend its modest stimulus on policy grounds because it was too small given the size of the recession, so the administration's pivot toward the "center" ultimately contributed to its losing the argument. This dynamic might as well be applied to the administration's entire policy agenda, in particular national security.

The GOP is looking to cut off all funding for civilian trials of suspected terrorists, essentially creating a separate and unequal system of justice for Muslims accused of terrorism. Having proclaimed the importance of the rule of law, the administration is at a loss to explain the arbitrary choice of venue for some terrorists, who will be tried by military commission, and others, who will be tried in civilian court, based on the strength of the government's case. The administration is struggling to ensure that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other alleged 9/11 conspirators are tried in a civilian court -- but the notion that Mohammed deserves a fair trial is undermined by the administration's repeated insistence that he will be executed. The GOP now has a point when it accuses the Obama administration of assembling a "show trial" for KSM: How can the accused get a fair trial when the nation's highest authorities have already publicly promised his execution?

The Obama administration has declared torture unlawful but has refused to hold any of the legal architects of torture accountable and has acquiesced to the Bush administration's whitewashing of the Department of Justice's internal report on the matter, which was adjusted to ensure the torture lawyers would not face even professional sanctions, let alone legal ones. There is a fundamental cognitive dissonance here: If torture is a crime, why is no one being punished for it? Obama has ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed, but his intention is to replace it with an Illinois facility all while preserving the practice of indefinite detention that helped contribute to Gitmo's international infamy. It's fair, then, to ask why he's closing the prison in the first place.

In all these cases, the Obama administration is losing the argument, because it has shrunk from offering a coherent rationale for its policies. The administration views the civilian justice system as a tactical weapon in an overall strategy for defeating al-Qaeda (hardly something one can argue in soundbites), and the GOP is at best indifferent to the potential national security consequences of what it is proposing. Republicans want to deny Muslims accused of terrorism all semblance of due process and humane treatment. At least that's consistent, both in policy and rhetoric. But the Obama administration has staked its moral argument on the rule of law -- one that is undermined by its own policies. Not only does that make the administration's argument less persuasive, it gives the further impression that the administration's aren't guided by principle but by the political climate, which further bolsters the notion that the opposition's arguments are based on principle.

If the Obama administration finds itself unable to close Gitmo and unable to try KSM and his alleged accomplices in a civilian court, or if torture returns as policy the second the GOP retakes the White House, this administration -- along with the Democratic Party -- will bear a great deal of responsibility for losing the argument. It has yet to argue forcefully and consistently, and it has so far failed, as Klein writes, to "change minds" even as it tries to change policy.

-- A. Serwer

(Flickr/White House)

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