A number of Republican politicians have weighed in on the easy parts of the torture debate. It is not hard to construct a retort that is perfectly calibrated to soothe the GOP base (decry release of the report), sounds like you are different from George W. Bush (vaguely decry “torture” without defining it) and nevertheless signal support for the intelligence community (commend it for keeping us safe).


CIA Director John Brennan pauses before answering a reporter’s question during a news conference at CIA headquarters in Virginia on Thursday. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

That is essentially what Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) did at the Heritage Foundation this week. He called the Senate Democrats’ report “biased” and said its release endangered Americas. He also criticized President Obama for blaming Bush for everything. He said: “Torture is wrong, unambiguously, period, the end. Civilized nations do not engage in torture and Congress has rightly acted to make absolutely clear that the United States will not engage in torture.” And he bemoaned the damage done to our alliances by release of the report But he did not answer the question posed to him, namely whether we lost our moral authority in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. To put it mildly, his answer was nonresponsive. He gave a canned speech but did not grapple with the hard questions.

Is what the CIA did “torture”? What would Cruz do in similar circumstances? He very slickly avoided those tough issues. As is his custom these days, he keeps one foot in the hawkish camp and one in the libertarian camp.

Likewise, in a written statement, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) declared: “It is clear that the Democrats wrote and released this report in an attempt to once again attack President Bush. I remain very proud to have worked for him, and proud that he kept America safe in the aftermath of 9/11. This report is one-sided and partisan.” But did Bush, whom he calls  “a good man” (I’m sure Bush is thrilled the governor thinks so), authorize “torture”? What would Jindal have done? We don’t know.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who prides himself as going against the grain, was conventionally ambiguous, as Politico reported:

As he strolled to his Senate office, Paul declined to characterize the report as an attack on Bush like so many of his colleagues. Instead the Kentucky senator, who’s attempting to chart a less interventionist course for the GOP as he mulls a presidential run, expressed mixed feelings on the report’s release and what it says about the United States — a sharp break from his Kentucky colleague [Mitch] McConnell, who blasted Democrats’ work as “ideologically motivated.”

“It’s important that people take a stand and representatives take a stand on whether they believe torture should be allowed. I think we should not have torture,” Paul said. “Transparency is mostly good for government. The only thing I would question is whether or not the actual details, the gruesomeness of the details, will be beneficial or inflammatory.”

But was this “torture”? And what would Paul do? He does not commit.

The few Republicans who laid it on the line this week are not running for president. Former Vice President Dick Cheney said we followed the law, we did not torture, the techniques worked and he’d do it again with no hesitation. A breath of fresh air! And from the exact opposite position, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said it was torture, it did not work and he would never authorize those techniques. More candor!

In skipping the real issues (What precisely crosses the line into “torture”? How would they make the call the next time we are faced with such a quandary?), the potential Republican hopefuls most clearly resemble the Senate Democrats. Both are posturing. Both leave the CIA twisting in the wind. The dutiful officials asked for a legal opinion, were told to proceed and now find both sides leave the intelligence officials to defend the specific actions they took.

The difference between being a senator and a president — or being governor of a small state and being commander in chief — is that the president/commander in chief does not have the luxury of abstraction. He operates in the concrete, with imperfect choices in a certain context. And when the political winds blow the other way, he must defend his actions (or switch on a dime and leave subordinates and supporters out to dry).

The country is entitled to a president who answers the hard questions. The easy ones don’t need to reach his desk. If in the context of a campaign — not even a campaign, but in early skirmishing — the question is too hard, the person likely is not up for the job. It is not simply a matter of candor, although that would be appreciated. We have the right to choose between a president who will err on the side of saving American lives (as Cheney did, confidently declaring that yes, sometimes the ends do justify the means) or err on the side of a strict standard that may leave him open to a different, horrible question: Why didn’t you do more to stop an attack on the United States? Candidates who won’t tell us where they stand or pretend there is no choice (adopting the Senate Democrats’ fiction that no useful intelligence was derived from these methods) are not up for the job. Period. The end.