Specter of Torture Probe May Provide Cover for Health Care

While others have asked the comparatively tackier question — whether Ted Kennedy’s death itself will push Obama’s health care reforms forward — there’s reason to expect that, leading Democrats notwithstanding, Attorney General Holder’s decision to take the first steps towards prosecuting the perpetrators of torture couldn’t have come at a better time.

As Congress left session, Democratic leaders adopted the “wait and see” strategy for dealing with the poisonous climate of baseless lies and fears created by Republican opponents. Give it a month, let the board clear, and opinion-makers could try to regain control of the debate.

If that strategy is to succeed, Democrats could hardly have asked for a better way to clear the board. Last April, a slim majority of Americans favored an investigation into torture, and that margin seems fairly easy to grow. The Republican hegemony on national security is broken, courtesy Bush’s bumbling and deliberately divisive tactics; its former luminaries, and the torture probes’ key opponents, are wildly unpopular; and Obama can distance himself from the probes, if they start to head south, because the public already expects they’re proceeding in spite of, rather than because of him. Renewing the debate on torture also allows Democrats to play to their newfound strength — the war on terror, which more Americans now trust the Democrats to fight — and solidify it going into 2010.

Still, a probe over torture will have to be negotiated skillfully to remain popular, effective, and honorable. There remains little to be gained by prosecuting the footsoldiers who used torture. “I was just following orders” may be a poor moral excuse, but it’s a fairly good legal one, owing to the critical institutional role of the Office of Legal Counsel, and it has a way of inspiring compassion. A probe narrowly tailored to the architects of the plan, those with the real responsibility, could expiate our collective guilt over the Bush years, with few real political or legal “casualties,” while giving the Democrats a chance to rebuild their national brand and brace for the resurgence of the health care debate.

Whether this is deliberate or not, I don’t know. Democrats have a reputation for guilelessness, arguably stemming from a lack of skill rather than a surfeit of honesty. But…

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