It is widely conjectured that the Obama administration’s move to investigate, and perhaps prosecute, CIA interrogators and debriefers is intended to shore up a leftist base disenchanted with the prospect of his abandoning the public option on healthcare.
Regardless of motives, this move is a political blunder (as well as being substantively wrong, IMHO) because it will only aggravate the conflict that is derailing his efforts to transform the healthcare system. Obama’s most vociferous opponents in the firestorm over healthcare are Jacksonians. As Walter Russell Mead wrote in his famous essay about American political traditions (Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, Wilsonian) Jacksonians are fiercely independent, and resentful of encroachments of the powerful on their autonomy. Jacksonians are especially resentful of powerful, privileged elites. And the Obama healthcare initiative is nothing if it is not an assault on the autonomy of millions of Americans by a privileged elite. Hence the ferocious, visceral reaction of millions of Jacksonian Americans.
And as Mead also wrote, Jacksonians are also fiercely patriotic, American exceptionalists who react robustly when the “folk” is threatened, and who are not very squeamish about using violent means to defend it. Such people will hardly shed any tears over even the worst that the interrogators are alleged to have done. But they will not take kindly to their prosecution, to say the least.
The administration’s move will only cement the belief among Jacksonians that Obama is an elitist at odds with a folk he views as “bitter clingers”; as someone more interested in the approval of Europeans than in the protection of Americans; and, to be blunt, someone not enthusiastically American. This will only deepen suspicions among them about anything he proposes, and undermine trust in his motives. As a result, they will be even less receptive to–no, more militantly resistant to–his healthcare plans. The vociferous opposition that has burst forth to the astonishment and dismay of the anti-Jacksonian elites will therefore only intensify as a result of this action.
Jacksonians are by no means a majority nationwide, but they are a pivotal bloc in many states, and it is highly unlikely that any major initiative like healthcare can pass over their impassioned opposition. And by his move on the CIA, Obama has only inflamed that passion.
If Obama is doing this to pacify his base, he is desperate indeed. If he is doing it out of conviction, he is jeopardizing his attainment of cherished goals. Either way, he is not being the uniter of the campaign, but the most divisive political figure in recent memory. Those on the other side of the divide are usually politically invisible, but woe betides anyone who arouses them. Obama has done it not once, but repeatedly. This is not a recipe for political triumph, but for intense political conflict.