Monday, April 27, 2009

Public Opinion and Torture

Gallup follows ABC/WaPo in polling torture investigations. The polls seem to show a slight majority in favor of further digging into the misdoings of the past. But it's not clear what this information means we should do.

In particular, it's impossible to reduce the "political implications", such as they are, of any issue to a single poll. We don't have any measurement of the public's intensity on this issue. Are there an appreciable number of voters out there who will vote against Democrats on the basis of prosecuting Bush officials (or career public service employees) for torture? Are any of these voters people who might otherwise vote for Democrats? If not, than the "torture issue" won't affect The Only Poll That Matters in 2010 or 2012, so we should all just feel free to do the right thing.

Of course, we also have to consider whether Republicans will be able to mount a successful attack campaign to drive down confidence in Democratic elected officials. But with the exception of Joe Lieberman, there is no pro-torture bipartisan consensus. If anything, we can point to old-guard Republicans such as Larry Wilkerson who not only emphatically oppose torture but also support investigating its perpetrators. Thus conventional news outlets, which usually allow bipartisan consensus to dominate coverage, will be inclined to report fairly broad. However, this will be complicated by the presence of anti-torture but anti-investigation Republicans such as John McCain, who will try to maintain this "reasonable" position.

The third concern is whether or not Republican Senators will respond to investigations with reduced legislative cooperation. But given the current lack of Republican cooperation, it's not clear how much he has to lose here. Thanks to Senate hardball, health care expansion will pass one way or another. The climate change bill appears doomed until Democrats can pick up a few more Senate seats. The same goes for EFCA.

So what is there to lose? Probably very little. I know people expect The Right Thing to have negative political consequences, but that's not a universal truth.

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