In political debate, the side that keeps its arguments simple and repeats them again and again is likely to gain the advantage. It is an easier sale, especially when the topic is as scary as terrorism.
That’s how Republicans got the edge in the dispute over President Barack Obama’s planned closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison. And it put former Vice President Dick Cheney on a separate but almost equal platform with the president of the United States, which is a plus any time the party out of power can manage it.
Their back-to-back speeches on Thursday gave Cheney "a lot of credibility" and put Obama on the defensive, said Republican pollster David Winston.
"From a political standpoint, I think Cheney wins on points," said GOP strategist Rich Galen. Long-term, the former vice president’s premier role may have a downside for the Republicans, given his 25 percent approval rating and his status as the most unpopular top figure in an unpopular administration. But Galen said that at this point, "It’s either Cheney or who else. There’s no who else, so you take Cheney."
In the Guantanamo argument,Obama’s critics didn’t worry about legalities, court decisions or complexities. They invented an argument about letting terrorists move next door to Americans.
Although no one had ever suggested such a thing, it worked, and the Democratic Senate voted overwhelmingly to deny Obama an $80 million appropriation to close the prison camp by eight months from now, as he had promised. Now Democratic leaders are saying that if Obama will come up with a plan on what to do with the prisoners — there are about 240 of them — they might agree.
He said he’s working on it, but it isn’t easy. If it were, the place might already have been shut, since former President George W. Bush said that he wanted to close it but 2008 wasn’t the right time.
"We’re cleaning up something that is, quite simply, a mess," Obama said. He said the prison Bush ordered opened in 2002 has left prisoners in legal limbo, flooded the government with legal challenges and distracted officials who should be spending their time dealing with potential threats.
"There are no neat and easy answers here," he said. "I wish there were." He said the issues are too complicated for absolutes or rigid ideology. So instead of scrapping everything the Bush administration did, he is adapting some of it, notably the use of military commissions to try terrorist suspects, to bring them "in line with the rule of law."
To which Cheney, in his own terrorism speech minutes after Obama’s, said there’s no place "for some kind of middle ground" on the issue. " … Half measures keep you half exposed," he said. "You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States, you must keep every nuclear-armed terrorist out."
There’s no disputing that. But conjuring nuclear terrorists serves his argument that it is all or nothing, with no room for "sensible compromise" or "splitting differences," in Cheney’s words.
Even debating the issues is wrong in Cheney’s view. "The terrorists see just what they were hoping for — our unity gone, our resolve shaken, our leaders distracted," he said.
And not only over Guantanamo, but also over the interrogation tactics Cheney calls enhanced and Obama calls torture.
"Torture was never permitted," Cheney repeated. But waterboarding and other methods certainly sound torturous. Cheney dismissed that issue as "contrived indignation and phony moralizing." He also said that hard-line questioning produced information that "prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people."
No proof, but he said that is because it’s in classified memos Obama hasn’t released. That is said to be under review. Still, in an information sieve like Washington, it is hard to conceive that information involving hundreds of thousands of lives saved would not have been leaked by now.
Cheney argues that closing Guantanamo will make America less safe, and that in promising to do it, Obama and his allies are trying to cozy up to European opinion. Cheney’s administration wanted it shut at some point, and so did Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee who now says it can’t be done without a plan on what to do with the inmates.
It was, as Obama said, opened without a plan on what to do with the prisoners except lock them up. Bush did it by presidential order; there was no discussion or legislation involved, and in 2006 the Supreme Court overruled the system by which the administration planned to try prisoners. At one point, Guantanamo held up to 750 inmates. The new president noted that more than 525 prisoners were released under the Bush administration, before he took office and ordered the place closed.
"Rather than keeping us safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security," Obama said. "It is a rallying cry for our enemies. It sets back the willingness of our allies to work with us in fighting an enemy that operates in scores of countries."
That’s complicated. Republicans are still keeping it simple.
"Guantanamo has worked very well," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader. "I’m not sure this is broken and needs fixing."
And certainly not if it will mean bringing prisoners to the United States to be tried and imprisoned if convicted.
"Republicans oppose releasing these terrorists or importing them into our local communities," said Rep. John Boehner, the House Republican leader.
Obviously, but nobody has proposed either.
Obama said trying to scare people won’t protect them. "And we will be ill-served by some of the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue."
But for the present, it serves the political purposes of his opponents.
Walter R. Mears reported on politics and government for The Associated Press for more than 45 years. He is retired and lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.