Why Democrats buckled to GOP fears on Guantánamo

The Senate denied Obama the money to shut down the prison, in part because Democrats didn't want to be seen as soft on terrorism.

Harry Hamburg/AP
Under the gaze of Hunter Summer, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee from 1931-1947, FBI Director Robert Mueller talks with House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 20, 2009.

Wednesday's 90-to-6 vote in the Senate to block the closure of the Guantánamo detention facility followed a weeks-long Republican blitz, which argued that closing the military prison would “release deadly terrorists in American neighborhoods."

The issue comes at a time when many Democrats believe they have begun to chip away at the GOP's decades-long status as the trusted party on security issues. Some Democratic senators worried that closing Guantánamo – in the absence of a credible plan from the White House – might undermine that progress, allowing Republicans to cast them as soft on terror.

Democrats at first dismissed the argument. But by Wednesday, all but six Democrats voted with a united GOP caucus to strip $80 million earmarked for the closure of Guantánamo. It had been part of a $91.3 billion defense supplemental bill to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“It became NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard] on steroids,” says Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington.

The vote coincides with a new poll that shows Democrats at parity with Republicans on the issue of national security for the first time since the Vietnam War.

Some 64 percent of likely voters approve of the job President Obama is doing on national security – six points higher than the president’s overall job-approval rating, according to a poll released Monday by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Democracy Corps, which are Democratic pollsters.

By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, Americans say that Mr. Obama is doing better on national security than his predecessor, President Bush. "This survey signals a possible generational shift in attitudes that could have broad electoral consequences, depriving Republicans of one of their last remaining advantages just when their image has dropped to an all-time low relative to the Democrats,” the report concludes.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, for one, has been an outspoken critic of Guantánamo. “Guantánamo has been a symbol of abuse and disregard for the rule of law for too long,” she said Wednesday.

Yet she voted against the line item to provide $80 million for closing Guantánamo. She cited public concerns that the president would release terrorists in US neighborhoods. Obama has yet to present a plan to show how the transition from Guantánamo would work, she said.

“No member of Congress wants to see or advocate the reckless release of anyone into our communities," she added. "I very much regret that this amount [$80 million] was in the supplemental bill without a plan."

At an oversight hearing of the Federal Bureau of Intelligence Wednesday, Republicans pressed Director Robert Mueller on whether the Obama administration's decision to close Guantánamo Bay may endanger Americans.

"Terrorists were detained there for a reason – to keep Americans safe," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

In response, Mr. Mueller said, "Concerns we have about individuals who may support terrorism being in the United States run from concerns about providing financing to terrorists [to] radicalizing others with regard to violent extremism [and] the potential for individuals undertaking attacks in the United States."

But those concerns aren't unique to Guantánamo detainees, he added: "Any individual who comes into the United States from whatever source ... may present a challenge."

For his part, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii said Guantánamo had become too much of a distraction – to the point that it threatened to delay war funding. “Instead of letting this bill get bogged down over this matter, as chairman of the committee I determined that the better course is to eliminate the funding,” he said on the floor of the Senate just before the mid-day vote.

But he also emphasized the need to close the prison. “Let me be very clear: We need to close Guantánamo prison,” he added. “Our servicemen and woman are doing great work, but the fact of the matter is that Guantánamo is a symbol of the wrongdoing that has occurred, and we need to remove that connection.”

Some experts suggest that the Democrats are playing it safe. “Dems should not feel on the defensive. The polls are still in their favor,” says Julian Zelizer, a political scientist at Princeton University in New Jersey. “But unless Democrats are clear on what they want to do with these detainees, these votes could chip away at that approval level.”

“The promise to close Guantánamo is one of the most important steps Obama made early on," he adds. "Now, to have Democrats in the Senate backtrack and give the sense that Republicans are regaining their momentum is a blow."

Republican pollsters challenge the view that the public has moved toward Democrats on national security. According to a poll released last week by Resurgent Republican, a GOP polling and advocacy group, 53 percent of Americans say “harsh interrogation" of detainees – which critics call torture – is justified, compared with 34 percent who say it is not.

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