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The Torture Debate -- Who's Winning?

Who's winning the torture debate? Unofficial Cheney spokesperson Stephen Hayes, unsurprisingly, believes Dick Cheney is. Haye's latest article in the Weekly Standard, "Cheney's War on the Democrats," makes the case that Cheney is winning in a cakewalk, the Democratic torture critics are in their last throes, and so on and so forth. Hayes gloats, "there is little doubt that the constant pressure applied by Cheney is having a significant effect."

Yet the only evidence he cites is a poll showing somewhat ambiguously pro-torture sentiments among the public:

A stunning 71 percent of those surveyed said that the use of torture could be justified--with 15 percent saying it is "often" justified, 34 percent saying it is "sometimes" justified, and 22 percent saying it is "rarely" justified.

First, I'd point out that this is not a wildly pro-torture result. Second, to whatever extent it does signal public support for torture, it hardly proves that making Dick Cheney the spokesman for this debate helps the Republican Party.People tend to agree with the Democratic position on health care, but it wouldn't make sense for Democrats to have Al Sharpton making the case on health care for them every day. Indeed, Cheney's snarling mug may be the most likely possible thing to turn the debate the Democrats' way.

Meanwhile, Matthew Yglesias makes a shrewd point about the GOP's tactic of trying to turn the torture debate into a question of what Nancy Pelosi knew and when she knew it:

And here's where the right's tactical acumen comes up short. Various conservative commentators have expressed their hope that gunning for Pelosi will blunt progressive calls for a "truth commission" to thoroughly investigate what really happened on Bush's trip to the "dark side". Fox's Neil Cavuto said we might be in a "Mexican standoff" wherein Pelosi would agree to drop the idea of investigations to prevent herself from attracting scrutiny. Steven Hayes, Dick Cheney's official biographer, said, "Democrats who have been so enthusiastic about truth commissions have to be stopping and saying, OK, wait a second." What conservatives are missing here is that this is a fight they were winning before they started gunning for Pelosi. Their best ally in this fight was Barack Obama, whose desire to "move forward" rather than focusing on the past had been the subject of much consternation. Had conservatives simply reached out to grab the hand that was being extended to them, they could have gotten what they wanted.

But in their zeal to score a tactical win, the right has made a truth commission more likely not less likely. Obama wanted to avoid a backward-looking focus on torture in part because it distracted from his legislative agenda. But if we're going to be looking backward anyway, thanks to conservatives' insistence on complaining about Pelosi, then the move forward strategy lacks a rationale. And far from forcing a standoff in which Pelosi will abandon her support for an investigation, the right has forced her into a corner from which she can't give in to moderate Democrats' opposition to such a move without looking like she's cravenly attempting to save her own skin.

There's no sign that Pelosi or anyone else is backing off the truth-commission idea. And, indeed, by suggesting that Pelosi could be a target of an investigation, conservatives have helped cleanse the idea of the odor of victor's justice.

I think he's dead on here. But I think he's on shakier grounds when he proceeds to suggest that more information might turn the public toward the Democrats:

I’ve seen polling which suggests that the public is reasonably sympathetic to the pro-torture position. But I’m quite certain the public isn’t generally aware of facts that would certainly come out in a truth commission process. For example, that the Bush administration’s torture techniques were specifically modeled on techniques employed by Chinese forces during the Korean War for the purpose of extracting false confessions. That the experts in the techniques whose advice was sought in designing the torture program warned interrogators that the methods were illegal and unlikely to produce reliable information. That one principle purpose of the torture program appears to have been to generate false information about links between al-Qaeda and Iraq. Or that abusive detention practices occurred far beyond Abu Ghraib and have led to the deaths of many people.

Anytime you can mold public opinion with the facts most synpathetic to your view, you can win. But doing that isn't very easy, and I don't expect it to happen this time. Most people are not very attentive to the details of policy arguments. They are somewhat attentive to the personalities involved, which is why Cheney's intervention is good news for the Democrats. But I wouldn't expect the debate to play out like a national seminar on torture. It's more likely to resemble a partisna food fight.

Which, actually, is the main reason I think the GOP's pelosi gambit could backfire -- it offers the chance to de-partisanize the debate. Many Republicans are clinging to torture because they don't want to believe that their party has embraced Cold war era communist torture techniques. Liberals' goal here ought to be to make torture something that neither party will accept going forward. So de-polarizing the debate is the most promising path. Do the Republicans think Pelosi is the key figure here? Ok, knock yourselves out! Let's investigate the Pelosi torture regime in full. Then maybe we can put an end to the vicious Pelosi torture era.

--Jonathan Chait