Voting, or the prospect of voting, clarifies things. The questions aren't so theoretical. The stakes are higher. We see where politicos really stand on the day's issues.
Take the upcoming Senate vote on Michael Mukasey's nomination as attorney general, or the not unrelated, upcoming vote to pick the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee. We've learned a lot, it seems, about where Democrats and Republicans stand on what's clearly not an academic or theoretical issue in the middle of a war on Islamic terrorism.
"I think there are probably very few people in this room or in America who would say that torture should never, ever be used, particularly if thousands of lives are at stake. It is easy to sit back in the armchair and say that torture can never be used, but when you are in the foxhole, it is a very different deal. And I respect, I think we all respect, the fact that the president is in the foxhole every day."
No, that's not Mukasey, Dick Cheney or any of the top-tier GOP presidential candidates who support severe interrogation techniques such as waterboarding in certain circumstances. It's Chuck Schumer addressing a Senate hearing on terrorism in 2004. The New York senator's tough 2004 words came up last week, because Schumer, a liberal's liberal and Judiciary Committee member, has been a key vote on Mukasey. He ended up voting to confirm and foiling the left's efforts to nix the nomination, but not because they're kindred spirits on torture. Schumer has changed his position. He no longer favors torture even if lives are at stake, saying in his Mukasey statement that he opposes any waterboarding of captured terrorists.
If we got a greater clarity from Schumer, we've gained even more from the Democrats running for president. This is healthy for a country in wartime, and it's the result of two looming votes.
Given the Democratic electorate, the Schumer stand wasn't enough. The top-tier candidates (Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama) don't have the luxury of supporting Mukasey while opposing waterboarding—even if the nuclear device is ticking and a captured jihadist has beans to spill.
"George Bush's political appointees ... have twisted the law to justify waterboarding and other interrogation techniques that have long been considered torture," Edwards said. "Now the man who is supposed to clean up the Justice Department ... says he does not know whether waterboarding is torture or not. What more information does he need?"
Oh, maybe what techniques, if any, are used.
Obama tried to achieve solidarity with Democratic lefties by joining them in conflating waterboarding with torture and heaping abuse on anyone who dares to disagree: "We don't need another attorney general who looks the other way on issues as profound as torture. Judge Mukasey's professed ignorance of the debate over the propriety of practices like 'waterboarding' ... was appalling." So much for nuance.
Said Clinton, "[W]e cannot send a signal that the next attorney general in any way condones torture."
What's interesting about Schumer's, Clinton's and Obama's Mukasey statements is the vast and critical distance all have traveled on the interrogation issue. You saw this in Schumer's 2004 quote, but Obama and Clinton also once had adult answers to the ticking time bomb question. In October 2006, Clinton had said there were "very rare" cases involving "an imminent threat to millions of Americans" when severe interrogation might be needed. But at a September 2007 debate, Obama declared we cannot have a president "state as a matter of policy that there is a loophole or an exception," and Clinton said, "As a matter of policy, [torture] cannot be American policy, period."
Yes, they left themselves some wiggle room—their "as a matter of policy" and Obama's "I will make that judgment at that time"—but their rhetorical opposition to torture or severe interrogation was categorical. With their Mukasey statements, they've crossed over to "never never" land in many respects.
Whether a candidate opposes torture or waterboarding in any and all cases, or favors rough interrogation methods when a time bomb's ticking—whether a would-be president is more concerned about waterboarding a terrorist than thousands of casualties—voters should know where he or she stands. Clarity is good. It might even be life-saving.