I have to admit, I’m more than a little bit confused after watching your speech yesterday. I mean, you hit all the usual rhetorical high-notes your speeches are known for; really tugged at both the mind-strings (if you will) and the heartstrings. I particularly loved the straight-up denunciation of the Bush policies with regard to detention and interrogation, especially the part about how the Bush administration “made decisions based on fear rather than foresight; that all too often our government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions. Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And during this season of fear, too many of us – Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens – fell silent.”
And when you made the point that not only are our values something which we need to respect and pay attention to even when the going gets rough, but that those values themselves are a large part of what “strengthens our country and…keeps us safe,” well, that’s the stuff that got you elected.
But I noticed something else, something not nearly as comforting or inspiring, something that was rendered into even sharper focus when I watched The Daily Show later that night. I’m not sure I would have been able to put my finger on it without their assiduous combing of the archives, but Stewart & Co. adroitly highlighted what had been bothering me about some of the first parts of your speech (start about two minutes in). You were doing old Bush riffs. That’s what unsettled me.
I know, I know, a lot of politics is recycling old boilerplate in such a way that it seems new and shiny again, makes us believe again (or at least makes us willing to try to suspend our disbelief). And it’s not as if every single thing the Bush administration ever said or did was wrong or bad. Your job is to keep the good and restructure or replace the bad. But there’s a difference between keeping the good ideas of your predecessor(s), and sounding so much like him in a speech that people get a seasick sense of déjà vu. Seeing the Daily Show clip above, I realized that I wasn’t alone in getting that feeling.
But that wasn’t where my discomfort ended, unfortunately.
After excoriating the Bushies, and then following that with your “Bush’s Greatest Hits” portion in the early part of your speech, you said this:
finally, there remains the question of detainees at Guantanamo who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people. And I have to be honest here _ this is the toughest single issue that we will face. We’re going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States…
…our goal is to construct a legitimate legal framework for the remaining Guantanamo detainees that cannot be transferred. Our goal is not to avoid a legitimate legal framework. In our constitutional system, prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man. If and when we determine that the United States must hold individuals to keep them from carrying out an act of war, we will do so within a system that involves judicial and congressional oversight. And so, going forward, my administration will work with Congress to develop an appropriate legal regime so that our efforts are consistent with our values and our Constitution.
You’ll “develop an appropriate legal regime” – one which falls outside the existing system of both civilian AND military justice, including the military commissions? And you don’t see any irony in saying that with a straight face after having just spent several eloquent paragraphs justly lambasting the Bush administration for having “established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable – a framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions, and that failed to use our values as a compass?”
Can you please explain for me, Barack, in simple and clear language, the safeguards which would ensure that the “legal framework” your administration intends to construct outside both existing military and civilian justice systems, would NOT be “an ad hoc legal framework” of the sort you criticized the Bush administration for? What checks and balances would exist? Who could stop the program, or alter it, or call for it to be investigated – short of the everpresent-but-rarely-used last resort of impeachment? If small-D democracy of the sort we hold dear is loosely defined as “government with the informed consent of the people,” what role do you envision for the public’s ability to judge for themselves the efficacy of this program, as well as its consistency with our laws and values?
Again, I wasn’t alone in my misgivings. Rachel Maddow and her top-of-the-hour guest put it better than I have. This video is crucial for liberals who don’t feel like “being on the liberal team” means “my guys, wrong or right.” What makes us different from the Hannitys and Limbaughs and the rest of that crowd is that when our guys screw up, we want THEM held accountable, too. Watch it: