Would Democrats have supported extrajudicial killings under Attorney General John Ashcroft?


U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gestures at an annual awards ceremony for the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency in Washington. (YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS)

What is clear, I think, is that if Attorney General John Ashcroft had given the exact same testimony in 2005, the Democratic Party would have been horrified. As Glenn Greenwald persuasively argues, Sen. Barack Obama would likely have been particularly horrified. In 2006, he stood on the Senate floor and condemned the idea that a “perfectly innocent individual could be held and could not rebut the Government’s case and has no way of proving his innocence.” In this case, he is asserting the right to launch a Hellfire missile at those same individuals — a policy that obviously comes with even less of an opportunity for the target to mount a reasoned appeal.

A week ago, I wrote a column on the tendency of the Democratic and Republican parties to slide from one position all the way to the opposite position without so much as a word of explanation to their voters. I listed some examples, including the flip-flops of various Republicans on the individual mandate and cap-and-trade, and the flip-flops of various Democrats on questions of executive power and filibuster reform.

In reply, Brad DeLong accused me of false equivalence. I had offered “substantive” reversals on behalf of the Republicans, he wrote, but my examples of Democratic flip-flops were best explained as changes in “political and legislative strategy.” DeLong concluded that “there are differences in honesty and intellectual consistency as far as their commitment to substantive policies are between the two parties.”

I think he’s right that there are differences between the two parties, and the Republican Party has had more and more egregious examples of opportunistic policy reversals in recent years. But the Democratic Party engages in these flips and flops as well. And, though there are exceptions, like Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the relative quiet that has greeted the Obama administration’s argument for extrajudicial killings of American citizens looks like a very clear instance of Democrats quietly abandoning a once strongly held position purely because control of the White House has changed hands.

Or, to put it another way, what would Sen. Obama have said about this policy if John McCain had won the 2008 election?

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