In a difficult election year for congressional Democrats, the Obama administration's swap of prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl for five high-level Taliban isn't helping, as the ensuing flap is prompting some Democrats to question the president's decisions – once again.
Republicans initiated the barrage of criticism, but now some Democrats are expressing dissatisfaction with President Obama's handling of the Bergdahl case. Moreover, the internal fuming is becoming something of a regular feature of Democratic life: Democrats in coal-producing states are angry about a new EPA carbon-emission rule, and others joined GOP calls for the secretary of Veterans Affairs to resign over secret wait lists for veterans' medical treatment. And don't forget the political hits Democrats feel they have already taken over the 2012 attacks on US personnel in Benghazi, Libya, and the Affordable Care Act.
Democrats who object to the Bergdahl-for-Taliban trade do so on the merits. But the November election is probably also an underlying concern.
“Don't expect many candidates to run as ‘Obama Democrats,’ ” says John Pitney, a congressional expert at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “The main question for the party this fall is whether the president will be a mere problem or a catastrophic liability.”
Mr. Obama said Thursday he makes “no apologies” for swapping Bergdahl for five Taliban in US custody at Guantánamo, ending the sergeant’s five years of captivity.
But his representatives have been busy explaining the decision to members of Congress, at a lunch for Senate Democrats on Tuesday and then at a classified briefing for all senators on Wednesday evening. But even these outreach efforts did not assuage concerns among some in the president’s party.
“I came out of there with more questions than I got answers,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D) of West Virginia, after hearing from the administration’s defense, diplomatic, and intelligence officials at Wednesday's closed-door meeting.
The red-state Democrat did not buy one of the administration’s reasons for the swap: Bergdahl's deteriorating health. The senators on Wednesday viewed the proof-of-life video of the sergeant – estimated to have been taken in December – but Senator Manchin thought it merely showed a man who was “drugged,” not necessarily a man in ill health. Some senators agreed, while others said Bergdahl “did not look good,” or “did not look like a well person,” and noted that he stuttered.
“We all agree that we’re not dealing with a war hero,” Manchin said, adding that he wants to see an internal investigation of Bergdahl, including what those who served with him said at the time of his disappearance five years ago. The New York Times reported Thursday that a classified report completed two months after Bergdahl left his unit in Afghanistan concluded he most likely walked away of his own free will. The report also found that Bergdahl had “wandered away from assigned areas before,” the Times wrote. The classified report did not conclude that there is evidence Bergdahl had permanently deserted.
Manchin, like many Republicans, is concerned about the potential for the five freed Taliban to return to the fight and kill Americans. The men are now under a travel ban in Qatar, with that government’s promise to monitor them for at least a year. The senator is upset, too, that the administration did not notify Congress of the prisoner release 30 days before it happened, as required by law.
That also riled two leading Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. They refuted a claim, made by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough during a Tuesday lunch with Senate Democrats, that Congress had been in the loop about a swap. Only Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada knew about the prisoner trade in advance.
The Associated Press meanwhile reported that the reason the White House did not inform Congress was because the Taliban had threatened to kill Bergdahl if knowledge of the deal leaked and became public.
"The Senators were told, separate and apart from Sgt. Bergdahl’s apparent deterioration in health, that we had both specific and general indications that Sgt. Bergdahl's recovery – and potentially his life – could be jeopardized if the detainee exchange proceedings were disclosed or derailed,” a senior administration official said Thursday.
The president also has his defenders for the swap. Richard Durbin, the Senate majority whip from Illinois, said after Wednesday’s meeting: “The premise was sound: Bring home our troops. If they are captured, bring them home. I think we’ve got to keep returning to that because there are many who want to dismiss this and say, ‘Well, we have suspicions about this man.’ "
As more information unfolds about the Bergdahl case – and it will as hearings and leaks continue – Obama may come out looking better, or worse. The problem that Democrats face, says Mr. Pitney, is that “fairly or unfairly, people are starting to see the administration as incompetent.”