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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Giving Blackmail a Bad Name

Hilzoy, writing in the Washington Monthly, quotes an outraged commentary from respected legal analyst Scott Horton:

“Senate Republicans are now privately threatening to derail the confirmation of key Obama administration nominees for top legal positions by linking the votes to suppressing critical torture memos from the Bush era. A reliable Justice Department source advises me that Senate Republicans are planning to “go nuclear” over the nominations of Dawn Johnsen as chief of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in the Department of Justice and Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh as State Department legal counsel if the torture documents are made public…It now appears that Republicans are seeking an Obama commitment to safeguard the Bush administration’s darkest secrets in exchange for letting these nominations go forward. (…)

Noting that this strategy dovetails with a conservative smear campaign against the two nominees, Hilzoy quite correctly calls it “completely appalling”. As he says:

The slurs on Koh and Johnsen are vile. They are widely respected legal scholars.
Besides the ugliness of the attacks, what the Republicans are doing is really unprecedented. First, the President has traditionally been given deference in the choice of his advisors. If some President wants to have someone in his cabinet, the presumption is that he ought to be able to do so, absent illegality or some sort of manifest incompetence. For the Republican Senators to hold these appointees up not for those reasons, but because they disagree with their policies, is just wrong; if this happened every time a new administration came into office, the opposition party would filibuster half the nominations and no one would never govern at all.
Second, what the Republicans are trying to do is to dictate to the President a matter that is purely his prerogative: deciding whether or not to unclassify documents. This is insane: it’s as though Obama threatened to withhold funding for the Senate unless Mitch McConnell fired some staffer he didn’t like.
And the combination — holding appointments hostage while trashing people’s reputations in order to keep Obama from making a decision he plainly has the right to make — is unconscionable.

It appears the Senate Republicans in question may have overestimated their latitude here, as evidenced by some great comments following Horton’s blog at The Daily Beast. As a commenter with the handle ‘Ultrahop’ responds:

Bring it on! Why back down? Let them filibuster. The public reaction would be rather decisive, I would think. Not every Senate Republican is going to stand on the side of torture. Does Olivia Snow believe in using torture? I think not.

And another who goes by ‘cbl99201’ adds:

I have to agree that these memoranda should see the light of day. This is one worth fighting over. Even Mcain would support it !!

And ‘pennsyskid2000’ notes perceptively:

I can’t wait to see attack ads against Repubs in 2010 for defending the Bush policy essentially advocating torture. I also don’t think filibustering will necessarily work in the long run. Senate Repub leader Bill Frist and other Repubs threatened to change the rules several years ago and require only a majority to confirm appointments, so the Dems can do the same and point to that Republican precedent to justify it. Once again, Republican short-sightedness will turn out to bite themselves in the ass.

Perhaps the best one comes from ‘fblevens’:

Full disclosure and impeachment are necessary only when sex acts are being performed within 20 feet of the Oval Office.
International war crimes? No worries.

And Digby warns about the precedent that could be set:

Let’s hope Obama stands up to them. If he shows weakness with the Republicans on this, there will be no end to it when it comes to judicial nominees. And it is vitally important that Obama balances out the courts after the past 25 years of centrist to far right appointments.

Clearly President Obama is being tested by the more malevolent elements of the opposition. How he handles this one will indicate the limits of his tolerance for political blackmail — and perhaps his prospects in future confirmation battles.

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