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Posted by on Feb 14, 2008 in Politics | 14 comments

A Great Fall: John McCain Caves on Waterboarding Ban

That’s about it, then, isn’t it—-all the talk about McCain as the new type of Republican moderate destined to lead the party back to its roots? I’m guessing that this latest news will put an end to talk among disenchanted Democrats of voting for him in November. 

Today, McCain voted legislation that intended to do exactly what he himself has advocated: adopted the Army Field Manual interrogation standards for the US government. Anti-torture advocates, such as the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, supported this crucial  bill. McCain himself said in a Republican debate in November that the Army Field Manual should be ‘the gold standard for interrogations.’

Senate Republicans generally opposed the bill, but several of them also did not want to cast a vote that could be construed as supporting torture, and so were relying on President Bush to make good on a threat to veto legislation limiting C.I.A. interrogation techniques …

[T]he White House has long said Mr. Bush will veto the bill, saying it “would prevent the president from taking the lawful actions necessary to protect Americans from attack in wartime.”

Senate Democrats, sensing an opportunity to highlight a policy dispute between the White House and Senator John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, had been hoping that Republicans would make a procedural challenge to the provision on interrogation methods.

Mr. McCain, a former prisoner of war, has consistently voiced opposition to waterboarding and other methods that critics say is a form torture. But the Republicans, confident of a White House veto, did not mount the challenge. Mr. McCain voted “no” on Wednesday afternoon.  (New York Times)

I’m shocked. Should I be shocked? No, I should not be shocked. Yet I am. But Joe Gandelman wrote only yesterday:

[For McCain], [t]he good news is that exit polls shows that a large portion of Republicans — a chunk of conservative voters who don’t go along with conservative talk show hosts and that increasingly vanishing species called “moderate Republicans” — are willing to accept him. The bad news is that a hard-core group of conservatives, most typified by conservative media establishment types such as top radio talk show hosts, continue to reject him….

Despite opposition from the hard-right, the results show that McCain does enjoy the (sometimes begruding) support of a large chunk of the Republican party including independent-minded conservatives and conservatives who look at McCain’s overall record.

But he’ll need a unified party to win — unless the Democrats splinter.

And to do that he will have to do what most candidates don’t do during elections: move more to the right to try and appease the hard-line conservatives. UNLESS he ignores them — figuring he can indeed put together a new kind of winning Republican coalition that will not bend over backwards to placate elements of the party that seem to want to resist working with and creating coalitions with other parts of the American electorate that aren’t “pure” in terms of talk-radio-style-defined conservatism.  (TMV)

Oh, John McCain.  You’re like the nice guy in a film who rejects the good but poor girl who loves him to marry the rich, arrogant, cold-hearted heiress his venal parents have picked out for him.  (Check out the cartoon accompanying Joe’s piece.)  How could you go against your heart and let down the people who believed you would stand on principle this way?

Why not create a ‘new kind of winning Republican coalition that will not bend over backwards to placate elements of the party that…resist…creating other parts of the American electorate that aren’t ‘pure’ in terms of talk-radio-style-defined-conservatism’? (TMV)  It’s exactly what I thought John McCain of all Republicans could achieve: a return to the old GOP I remember from my younger days (and of which, pre-Reagan, I considered myself a member).

I certainly didn’t look for quite such a precipitous plunge  (I mean from my point of view as a moderate Dem).

Moreover, it seems like a questionable move from a political standpoint:  it might win over a hardliner or two, though those guys are noted for intransigence.  On the other hand, moderates who were toying with the notion of voting for him—and there seem to be a number—are likely to see it as a betrayal of principle. 

Meanwhile, what do we make of it? What can we infer from McCain’s 180?

Michael Stickings:

[W]hat about John McCain, presumptive GOP presidential nominee, who has argued passionately against the use of torture — at least in theory — not least because he himself was the victim of torture?

Like most in his party, he voted NO. Apparently, when it comes right down to it, he’s fine with waterboarding….I think it’s pretty clear what McCain is up to — and just how much he’s willing to sell out to the torture-happy goons that make up his party’s base.

Kevin Drum:

[W]hy was the famously anti-torture and press-friendly senator avoiding phone calls last night?  Because he ended up voting against the bill.

But hey — who can blame him? It’s one thing to be against torture in a primary debate where you’re trying to appeal to independents and crossover voters, but it’s quite another thing to be against torture after you’ve won the nomination and need to appease a conservative base that’s righteously pissed off and not afraid to let you know it….[T]he voters McCain needs now…don’t want a president who opposes state sanctioned torture of captive prisoners. So McCain doesn’t oppose it anymore. Any questions?

Yes, I have a question. Why, John McCain? Why? I don’t mean “Why did you vote the way you did?” The answer is obvious. But why, or how, could you let down people who regarded you as someone who would stand by a moral principle, even if it appeared to be detrimental to his own interests? (And I would argue that it has not been detrimental to your interests.)

From being an honored outsider who would take on the establishment, you’ve revealed yourself as an ordinary cynical politician. It’s only now that I am realizing how much I esteemed you for standing by your convictions and insisting on holding the government to a higher standard.

This moderate Democrat mourns your fall.

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  • Guest

    These are complex times. Thanks for highlighting this issue Damozel. McCain’s vote troubled me enough I did some additional research. Courtesy of Ed Morrissey, this does seem like a reasonable explanation:

    “Yesterday, Congress did what was necessary if they wanted to make waterboarding an illegal interrogation process. However, they did more than that in this bill, which is why McCain rightly opposed it, and why Bush will wind up vetoing it. They basically gave terrorists a manual for American interrogation preparation. They went too far; they could have passed a very specific ban on waterboarding without having to publish the CIA’s approved list of techniques.”

    I hope that if Congress gave McCain an up or down vote on waterboarding, he would honor his prior position. Unfortunately, in Washington, there are very few (if any) simple up or down votes.

    The rest of Morrissey’s post provides other information worth considering, in particular, the update at the end.

  • StockBoySF

    I doubt that terrorists base their actions on what MIGHT happen to them IF they are captured. These are folks willing to die for their cause.

    Besides waterboarding is already an illegal interrogation technique in the US. In the past the US has prosecuted not only enemy soldiers that used it on us, but we have also prosecuted and imprisoned our own soldiers that have used it on others.

    The only reason that we’ve even having this conversation about waterboarding is that Bush wants it to be legal and is hiding behind those secret DoJ memos that show that waterboarding is in fact legal. The Bushies refuse to release them.

  • Of course, neither Kevin Drum nor I have been toying with the notion of voting for him. I’m disappointed he has flip-flopped on this issue, and that he didn’t back up his high-minded talk with action, but it’s hardly surprising. He’s trying to appeal to torture-happy conservatives.

  • casualobserver

    Stockboy, you need to update your talking points………….

    “The set of interrogation methods authorized for current use is narrower than before, and it does not today include waterboarding,” Steven G. Bradbury, acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, says in remarks prepared for his appearance Thursday before the House Judiciary Constitution subcommittee.
    “There has been no determination by the Justice Department that the use of waterboarding, under any circumstances, would be lawful under current law,” he said.


    Gah! Sorry, Michael, a paragraph got dropped when I was trying to edit it. I’ve fixed it now. I definitely didn’t mean to imply that you were leaning toward McCain.

  • Davebo

    I think Captain Ed needs to get with Senator McCain so they can get their stories straight.

    Here’s McCain’s explanation for the vote.

  • Guest

    Or maybe McCain should rely more on Captain Ed to help him say what he means. I read the full transcript of McCain’s statement, too, and he seemed to be suggesting what Morrissey took away from it, but you’re right, McCain is not as precise about it as Morrissey is. the one bit of hope I take from this is that McCain seems to acknowledge that more than waterboarding is at issue here. He talks about “techniques such as waterboarding” in at least one portion of his comments, suggesting he still believes a larger range of interrogation techniques could be considered torture and all should be illegal.

    In the end, I wonder why the following type of flexible but confidential approach has not been discussed (or has it?), to wit …

    Do what McCain once suggested and set up the Army Field Manual as the “gold standard” for all agencies including the CIA, and allow the CIA to employe alternative techniques but ONLY AFTER they subject those techniques to confidential, bi-partisan, inter-branch (executive, congressional, judicial) review to ensure the specifics are kept secret but also adhere to the fundamental principles forbidding torture and anything that smacks of it.

  • pacatrue

    I’m with stockboy in thinking that suicidal terrorists have very little concern with what the interrogation techniques are if they were ever to be caught. They are, after all, suicidal. Heck, even your common everyday domestic criminals probably don’t spend too much time investigating police procedurals before punching their girlfriend or knocking over the convenience store. We seem to spend far too much time worrying about what terrorists will think, and far too little time wondering what average citizens who could go either way in supporting terrorists think.

  • StockBoySF

    casualobserver, last week National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell told senators waterboarding could be used again.
    “If there was a reason to use such a technique, you would have to make a judgment on the circumstances and the situation regarding the specifics of the event,” McConnell said.
    “And if such a desire was generated on the part of — in the interest of protecting the nation, General Hayden would have to, first of all, have a discussion with me, and we would have a dialogue about whether we should go forward and seek legal opinion.
    “Once we agreed to that, assuming we did, we would go to the attorney general, who’d make a ruling on the specifics of the situation. At that point, it would be taken to the president for a decision, and if a decision was taken, then the appropriate committees of the Congress would be so notified.”

    And there’s this piece from last week the LA Times:,0,6070979.story

    So, while waterboarding may not be a tecnique currently used, the Bush Administration can authorize its use in the future if they feel that it is necessary.

  • Davebo

    Do what McCain once suggested and set up the Army Field Manual as the “gold standard” for all agencies including the CIA, and allow the CIA to employe alternative techniques but ONLY AFTER they subject those techniques to confidential, bi-partisan, inter-branch (executive, congressional, judicial) review to ensure the specifics are kept secret but also adhere to the fundamental principles forbidding torture and anything that smacks of it.

    Well, the administration is never going to go for that level of oversight.

    And frankly, I don’t think it’s feasible. Getting congress and the courts involved to approve each “enhanced interrogation”?

  • pacatrue

    I’d be content with the executive getting a ruling from the judiciary instead of the Attorney General, not for every interrogation, but whenever a whole new technique is being introduced. And then simply tell Congress. If Congress doesn’t like the judiciary’s decision, they can then change the law. The AG is just not independent enough.

  • Slamfu

    I read McCain’s justification for voting the way he did, but its not good enough. Thats treading too fine a line on an issue that should be loudly and clearly denounced. I was willing to do more research into it as considering his stances in the past this just didn’t make sense to me. But it appears to be what it looks like, him sucking up to the republican voters that didn’t vote for him in the primaries by looking tough. Funny that the two reasons I really liked him, campaign finance reform and his anti-torture stance, have in the last 48 hours been watered down by his own actions. Its like he was reading a playbook on how to lose the independent votes he’s going to need to have a hope of taking on Clinton if she wins.

    Obama’s going to eat him for lunch either way though and he knows it. Maybe he’s just shoring up his position with conservatives for when he resumes senatorial duties and is now a major player in his party.

  • StockBoySF

    Slamfu, I agree with you: I like McCain’s anti-torture stance and he did seem to be honorable (even though I’m an Obama fan and didn’t plan on voting for McCain). But now that McCain has done this…. well that just seems to go against what he always stood for. And it somehow has the feel of being a political calculation to gain conservative support. Perhaps he is thinking that once he has cinched the nomination he can start showing his centrist colors again. Voters in Nov. won’t really remember his vote now and if the Dems bring it up, McCain can explain it away.

    But it’s really too bad since I expected more of McCain than the other Republican candidates (except perhaps Ron Paul who you know what he stands for 100%).


    I’m looking forward to the days when the unitary executive is a Democrat….

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