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Why 6 Democrats Agreed With Republicans On Torture

Gina Haspel testifies during a confirmation hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, May 9, 2018 in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Gina Haspel testifies during a confirmation hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, May 9, 2018 in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
This article is more than 1 year old.

The most disturbing thing about Gina Haspel getting confirmed as America’s next CIA director is the fact that she won that position after overseeing torture at a CIA black site and destroying evidence that it took place. But the most surprising thing is that six Democratic senators cast the decisive votes that sealed Haspel’s victory.

This will come as a shock for liberals who expected a blue firewall against Haspel, given the controversial nature of her career. But the unsettling reality is that Americans are still divided over the ethics of torture, even though the Geneva Convention has prohibited torture since 1949. A 2017 Pew Research poll found that Americans of conservative-to-moderate political persuasion were more likely to support torture than Americans who identify as moderate-to-liberal.

The Democrats who voted for Gina Haspel — Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, Bill Nelson, Mark Warner, Jeanne Shaheen and Joe Donnelly — all hail from purple swing states. They’ve broken party lines to vote with Donald Trump and the GOP before, and while none of them are formal members of Washington’s Blue Dog caucus, they’re conservative Democrats whose votes are as likely to change as the breeze.

Naturally, this sort of thing is infuriating to liberal voters, many of whom have adopted politics of resistance ever since Trump and his allies swept into office. But what’s strange here is how rarely the actions of these conservative Democrats ever seem to incur the wrath of party leaders like Chuck Schumer. Prior to the Haspel vote, Schumer told reporters that he was not actively urging his colleagues to vote against Haspel. Furthermore, he kept his own vote closely guarded.

When Schumer’s passive approach to the Haspel confirmation is weighed alongside something he said last year — that the Democratic Party is a “big tent party” that welcomes many kinds of viewpoints — a problematic theme comes into focus.

Today’s Democratic Party leaders, it seems, are more interested in stewarding bipartisanship than taking tough, principled stands on issues that matter to their base.

To be fair to Schumer, the Democratic Party’s obsession with West Wing-style cooperation of parties began before his current tenure. Back when Bill Clinton signed the 1994 crime bill — now considered by many liberals to be one of the most destructive bills signed by a modern Democratic president — the party base was a more moderate collection of voters who rewarded reaching across the aisle. But as Democratic voters eventually began moving to the left (following the Republican Party’s hard turn to the far right) elected Democrats mostly remained fixated on bipartisanship as their default course of political action.

The problem with bipartisanship is that it only works as a political strategy when both parties are operating in good faith...

Even Barack Obama, who won the presidency after running on a mildly populist liberal platform, offered olive branch after olive branch to an increasingly extreme and immovable Republican Party as the Democrats debated how to pursue base-approved ideas like healthcare reform, breaking up the big banks that played an authorial role in the 2007 housing market implosion, and holding Bush-era officials responsible for torture they oversaw and approved. All of these ideas were predicated on moral principles such as equality and accountability. So in the interest of adding bipartisanship to that mix, Obama and the Democrats made good faith concessions to the GOP.

And what did they get in return for their bipartisanship? Procedural obstruction, a stolen Supreme Court seat, and — after Trump’s 2016 election victory — a plutocratic tax overhaul.

The problem with bipartisanship is that it only works as a political strategy when both parties are operating in good faith towards a set of ideals that are shared by the people whom they represent.

When one party acts in bad faith, in pursuit of goals that tens of millions vehemently oppose — such as bringing back the kind of stomach-churning torture that Gina Haspel once oversaw — the other party rarely gains anything by cooperating. There’s no implicit quid pro quo that the capitulating party can use as a bargaining chip in future negotiations because the party that acts in bad faith has no reason to honor that unspoken agreement. Mitch McConnell demonstrated this last December when he allowed the tax overhaul vote to proceed before Doug Jones was seated. Just a few years prior, the Democrats had granted McConnell’s request to delay a major vote on the Affordable Care Act so that Jones’ predecessor, Luther Strange could be seated and participate in the vote.

Chuck Schumer’s inability or refusal to recognize the GOP’s new rules of the game — demonstrated by his docile approach to building party resistance against Gina Haspel’s confirmation — is a loud call for Democratic elected officials and voters to have an urgent come-to-Jesus meeting about not only the party’s strategy, but its guiding purpose. The party as a whole must decide whether it cares more about clamoring for old-school bipartisanship or defending moral principles that are valued by voters and under attack in the Trump era.

Torture, which most Democrats oppose, is the perfect issue for igniting this conversation about polite bipartisanship and whether it still makes sense. No matter how strongly you feel about its merits, bipartisanship is why Gina Haspel is soon going to be running the CIA. Bipartisanship is what allowed Haspel to dodge accountability for atrocities like allowing a pregnant woman to be punched in the stomach. And as long as the Republican Party turns a blind eye to atrocities like this, continued attempts at bipartisanship from the Democrats will only serve to demoralize and depress their voters who consider torture a moral abomination.

That’s the last thing that Democrats need right now, and frankly, it’s the last thing that the world needs too.

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Miles Howard Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Miles Howard is a freelance writer who covers culture, travel and transformational politics.

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