We would suggest that the seeds of last night's fiasco for Democrats were planted much earlier than that--on January 11, 2009. That's the date that ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked President-Elect Barack Obama about the possible appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate crimes of the George W. Bush administration.
Obama replied by saying that he was inclined to "look forward as opposed to looking backwards," indicating that he was willing to give Bush criminals a free pass. It was that show of weakness, buttressed by similar statements that Obama has made since then, that many Massachusetts residents probably remembered as they went to polling places yesterday.
We suspect that Obama's refusal to take a principled stand on matters of justice was the No. 1 reason Democrats lost a seat that Kennedy had held for almost half a century.
And how's this for irony? The Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley, is known as a tough prosecutor, someone who definitely is willing to look backward to ensure that justice is done. It has been widely reported that Coakley ran a poor campaign. But Robert Parry of Consortium News, in a column criticizing CNBC's Chris Matthews' coverage of the Massachusetts race, said Coakley had some definite strengths:
Matthews dispensed with the serious stuff. He had little interest in mentioning Coakley’s history as an aggressive prosecutor, her central role in winning settlements from contractors of Boston’s infamous Big Dig project and from Wall Street firms that engaged in deceptive practices, including $60 million from Goldman Sachs to settle allegations that it promoted unfair home loans.
In other words, Coakley does not believe in letting bad guys get away with their misdeeds. But how can she succeed in an environment where the president, from her own party, indicates that's exactly what he intends to do?
Obama repeated the "look forward" nonsense last April when it looked like Spanish prosecutors might target Bush officials for sanctioning torture at Guantanomo Bay. Said the president: "I'm a strong believer that it's important to look forward and not backwards, and to remind ourselves that we do have very real security threats out there," said Obama. "So I have not had direct conversations with the Spanish government about these issues."
Here's how Sam Stein, of Huffington Post, summed up the administration's approach:
The non-committal response is consistent with the president's stance on domestic efforts to launch an investigation into the possible illegalities of the Bush years. The White House still has not taken a position on Sen. Patrick Leahy's proposed truth and reconciliation commission for such a task.
How serious are Bush crimes, the wrongs that Obama wants to gloss over? Scott Horton, of Harper's, reported on Monday about the possible homicides of three prisoners at Guantanomo in 2006.
In a piece titled "The Crime of Not Looking Backward," Glenn Greenwald cites Horton's work, noting that new evidence suggests detainees were tortured to death, and that was covered up to look like suicides. Greenwald goes on to note that Obama's "look forward" approach looks absurd in the face of such events:
Incidents like this dramatically underscore what can only be called the grotesque immorality of the "Look Forward, Not Backwards" consensus which our political class--led by the President--has embraced. During the Bush years, the United States government committed some of the most egregious crimes a government can commit. They plainly violated domestic law, international law, and multiple treaties to which the U.S. has long been a party. Despite that, not only has President Obama insisted that these crimes not be prosecuted, and not only has his Justice Department made clear that --at most--they will pursue a handful of low-level scapegoats, but far worse, the Obama administration has used every weapon it possesses to keep these crimes concealed, prevent any accountability for them, and even venerated them as important "state secrets," thus actively preserving the architecture of lawlessness and torture that gave rise to these crimes in the first place.
Greenwald went on to note health-care reform, almost presaging last night's election results in Massachusetts:
Every Obama-justifying excuse for Looking Forward, Not Backwards has been exposed as a sham (recall, for instance, the claim that we couldn't prosecute Bush war crimes because it would ruin bipartisanship and Republicans wouldn't support health care reform). But even if those excuses had been had been factually accurate, it wouldn't have mattered. There are no legitimate excuses for averting one's eyes from crimes of this magnitude and permitting them to go unexamined and unpunished. The real reason why "Looking Forward, Not Backwards" is so attractive to our political and media elites is precisely because they don't want to face what they enabled and supported. They want to continue to believe that it just involved the quick and necessary waterboarding of three detainees and a few slaps to a handful of the Worst of the Worst. Only a refusal to "Look Backwards" will enable the lies they have been telling (to the world and to themselves) to be sustained. But as Horton's story illustrates, there are real victims and genuine American criminals -- many of them -- and anyone who wants to keep that concealed and protected is, by definition, complicit in those crimes, not only the ones that were committed in the past, but similar ones that almost certainly, as a result of Not Looking Backwards, will be committed in the future.
Obama took office at a stunningly dangerous, and serious, moment in our history. But he has repeatedly given the impression that he is not serious about fundamental matters of justice. We suspect that is a major reason Martha Coakley went down to defeat last night in Massachusetts.
For more than 40 years, starting with Richard Nixon, Republican governance has personified corruption. But Democratic administrations--first Bill Clinton's and now Obama's--have allowed the Republican brand to remain untarnished.
The Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies probably were almost as corrupt as Nixon's. The George W. Bush presidency almost certainly was worse. But our three most recent corrupt GOP administrations have not been held accountable. That has caused many Americans to view the modern Republican Party as a legitimate governing option--when its numerous dirty deeds have shown that it is not.
What if Democrats, over the past 20 years or so, had exposed the ugly truth about the GOP? Only the nuttiest of right-wingers would have voted for Scott Brown--and Martha Coakley would have won in a landslide.
Democrats are like a boxer who has his opponent in trouble, staggering in a corner, but refuses to throw the knockout punch. That allows the opponent to come back and win every time. And that process probably started last night in Massachusetts--perhaps ending with massive Democratic losses in November.
It didn't have to be that way--and perhaps Obama still has time to change course. But he had better hurry.
Let's revisit January 11, 2009, and the "look forward, not backward" issue. Here' show Think Progress reported it:
The top question on Change.gov’s “Open for Questions” feature last week asked whether President-elect Obama will appoint a special prosecutor to “independently investigate” the “greatest crimes” committed under Bush. The inquiry, submitted by Bob Fertik of Democrats.com, has received over 22,000 votes. Today, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Fertik’s question to Obama:
Q: The most popular question on your own website is related to this. On change.gov it comes from Bob Fertik of New York City and he asks, ‘Will you appoint a special prosecutor, ideally Patrick Fitzgerald, to independently investigate the greatest crimes of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping.’
OBAMA: We’re still evaluating how we’re going to approach the whole issue of interrogations, detentions, and so forth. And obviously we’re going to be looking at past practices and I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards. … My orientation is going to be moving forward.
Let's ponder what we learn from that segment: Roughly 10 days before Obama was to take office, the No. 1 question on the minds of his constituents was investigation of possible Bush-era crimes. How did Obama respond to that concern? He blew it off.
Roughly one year later, Massachusetts voters had a chance to support a candidate that Obama had endorsed. How did they respond? They blew her off.
The moral of the story? You reap what you sow, Mr. President. Are you paying attention?