Rush Limbaugh is calling for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s resignation. On his radio show last week, the right-wing lightning rod babbled something about glass ceilings and equality—the kind of pseudo-progressive logic conservatives like to employ when attempting to disguise their utter contempt for a minority or opposition group (in this case, it’s both). In other words, if Pelosi truly wants to prove she’s worthy of a man’s job, then she ought to act like a man—you know, like Richard Nixon—and resign. It’s enough to make me rush to the speaker’s defense. But I refuse to take the bait, and I suspect few others will either.
The right has been waiting to take Pelosi down since the Democrats took control of the House in 2006. The Republican Party was quick to pounce on the Speaker’s allegation Friday that she was misled by the C.I.A. on the issue of torture, with House Minority Leader John Boehner admonishing his counterpart for questioning the C.I.A., telling CNN’s John King that we ought to instead pat intelligence agents on the back for a “job well done,” once again twisting a Democrat’s criticism of Bush administration officials into a slandering of the “troops.” Not to be outdone, on Meet the Press RNC Chairman Michael Steele attempted to conflate Pelosi’s situation with that of the president: “The question for me is does the president support Nancy Pelosi’s version of what happened or the C.I.A. director’s version of what happened?”
But Pelosi’s downfall would just be an added bonus for them. Republicans are betting that Pelosi’s—and thereby other Democrats in Congress’s—apparent complicity in the Bush administration’s torture program will cause Dems to further shy away from pushing for an inquiry into those crimes. At the very least, they want the attention deflected from what the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal today called “a spectacle of demagogic accusation and blame.” But the right’s gotcha strategy—calling Pelosi out on her apparent hypocrisy—is likely to backfire, the most obvious consequence of this finger-pointing being an even more fervent call by the public for a thorough investigation into who knew what and when.
Republican partisans like Limbaugh continue to make the erroneous assumption that Democrats think like them. Those who voiced outrage over the Bush administration’s policies didn’t do so because George W. Bush was a Republican, or even because of the nepotism or hanging chad that led him to power. The majority of Americans fundamentally disagree with those policies, and in fact, believe them to be violations of domestic and international law. The biggest miscalculation Republicans have made is that those in the Democratic Party who seek justice and accountability on the issue of torture will blindly defend Pelosi, and by extension the criminal policies for which they’re seeking answers.
If Pelosi’s claims that the C.I.A. misled Congress on the issue of torture are false, then perhaps Limbaugh is right that she should step down. Simply declassifying the notes from the C.I.A. briefing in question will provide the answer. The larger questions, however, were posed by none other than Karl Rove in the WSJ last week. “If Mrs. Pelosi considers the enhanced interrogation techniques to be torture, didn’t she have a responsibility to complain at the time, introduce legislation to end the practices, or attempt to deny funding for the C.I.A.’s use of them?” he asked with all of the ersatz incredulity of a trial lawyer. “If she knew what was going on and did nothing, does that make her an accessory to a crime of torture, as many Democrats are calling enhanced interrogation?” Actually, most Democrats are calling it what it is: torture. More importantly, the answer to both of Rove’s questions is, unequivocally, YES.
If Pelosi was aware of the program, the fact that she didn’t publicly protest doesn’t make the chief architects of that program, nor the attorneys who were hired to justify the legality of the program, nor the C.I.A. operatives who carried out the program, nor any other official—Republican or Democrat—who knew about the program, but who didn’t attempt to stop it, any less accountable. They should all be investigated for their collusive involvement, tacit or otherwise, in one of the most embarrassing, dangerous, and irresponsible programs in our nation’s history. In other words, I say throw Pelosi to the wolves if it means getting to the truth.
Even if Attorney General Eric Holder appoints a special prosecutor to investigate torture, high-level prosecutions are unlikely, so an independent congressional council—i.e. a “truth commission”—would at least shine a light into the dark corners of the Bush administration and Congress, and provide an official record that the U.S. attempted to enforce the law and rectify wrongs. That’s exactly the “spectacle” to which the WSJ referred and which the right fears; to them, the pursuit of truth and justice on the issue of torture is a “tempest,” with the author of the op-ed describing such a commission as “hearings intended to be little more than bear-baitings of the defeated Bush Administration.” Bush was shamed, discredited, and maligned, but defeated? This same piece praises Barack Obama for his “difficult decisions” on reinstating Bush’s military tribunals and releasing photos of tortured detainees, an indication that many of the previous administration’s policies are continuing.
By colluding with the administration on—or simply turning a blind eye to—a torture program that defied the country’s international obligations, many elected officials were attempting to preserve their careers at a time when voicing dissent might have resulted in dire political consequences. During her circus-like press conference on Friday, Pelosi repeatedly and clearly enunciated the same point: that the only way she believed it was possible to change course on issues like terrorism and torture was to focus on regaining congressional majorities and electing a Democratic president—which, she reminded us, she helped achieve. But the consequences of Pelosi’s failure to completely drain the swamp, which I detailed in these very pages last summer, are becoming increasingly evident. As Rove said, “Mrs. Pelosi is hip-deep in dangerous waters, and they are rapidly rising.”
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.