Torture as a litmus test

Remember that golden, innocent time -- the 1980s and ‘90s -- when the phrase “political litmus test” was associated with the debate about abortion rights, and torture was associated with the Spanish Inquisition?

Those days are gone. And, as usual in life, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news? Abortion isn’t nearly as divisive an issue as it used to be. The bad news? For the GOP, torture is the new abortion.


Not too long ago, judicial nominees and political candidates could expect to be grilled on abortion. As the Republican leadership became dominated by right-wing evangelicals, staunch opposition to abortion became a precondition for those seeking support from GOP insiders. Soon, abortion was a litmus test for both parties. Just as Republicans would oppose any candidate or nominee who supported abortion rights, Democrats would oppose anyone who wanted Roe vs. Wade overturned.

Of course, the abortion debate was never just about abortion. It was also about the role of the judiciary, the role of individual freedom, the role of women and the role of religion. As a result, debates about abortion sparked pitched battles between the political parties.

Today, though, the GOP’s interest in abortion appears greatly diminished. When President Bush nominated Michael B. Mukasey as attorney general, no one seemed clear about Mukasey’s views on abortion -- and no one in the GOP seemed to care very much either.

These days, you can forget that old-style GOP rhetoric about “values,” “human dignity” and the “culture of life.” Because the GOP has a new litmus test for its nominees: Will you or will you not protect U.S. officials who order the torture of prisoners?

As Scott Horton reports in his Harper’s Magazine blog: “Several days before his first meeting with the Senate Judiciary Committee, Michael Mukasey’s Justice Department handlers arranged a private meeting for him with a number of ‘movement conservatives.’... They pushed aggressively on the torture question. They wanted Mukasey to pledge that he would toe the administration’s line” by not criticizing the administration’s approval of waterboarding and similar interrogation techniques, and they wanted him to “protect those who authored the [interrogation] program” by issuing opinions that would keep those responsible for the program from facing criminal prosecution.

In his Senate testimony, Mukasey made it clear that he shared this agenda. He was conciliatory on a wide range of issues, but even when it looked as though his confirmation was at risk, he refused to give an opinion on whether waterboarding constitutes torture or is legally prohibited. That was his line in the sand.

For further evidence that torture is the new abortion -- at least when it comes to the GOP -- look at the Republican presidential hopefuls. This time around, rigorously antiabortion evangelicals such as Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee gained little traction, while Rudy Giuliani -- who supports abortion rights -- has a solid lead. On Wednesday, Giuliani gained the coveted endorsement of Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition.

Giuliani’s main selling point with GOP stalwarts is his toughness on terrorism, symbolized by his “gloves-off” approach to interrogations. In the campaign’s first GOP presidential debate, Giuliani told a cheering crowd that if the U.S. captured a suspect believed to be planning a terrorist attack, “I would tell the people who had to do the interrogation to use every method they can think of.” Pressed on whether that would include waterboarding, Giuliani repeated, “Every method they could think of, and I would support them in doing that.” More recently, Giuliani claimed that whether or not waterboarding is torture “depends on who does it.”

But if the waterboarding debate has become a symbolic rallying point for Republicans -- emblematic of a broader insistence on aggressive unilateralism in foreign affairs and on executive power unchecked by Congress or the judiciary here at home -- it increasingly seems to be turning into a symbolic litmus test for Democrats too.

Significantly, every Democrat running for president opposed Mukasey’s confirmation, specifically citing his refusal to call waterboarding torture. New York’s Charles Schumer and California’s Dianne Feinstein became the only Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote for Mukasey, and both found themselves on the defensive.

They shouldn’t have been so surprised by the rapid blowback. Far more than the abortion debate ever did, the debate about torture goes to the very heart of what (if anything) this country stands for. Do we want to be the nation imagined by the signers of the Declaration of Independence, a nation with “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” committed to a vision of human dignity and unalienable rights, limited government and the rule of law?

Or would we rather bring back the methods of the Spanish Inquisition?

As litmus tests go, that’s not such a bad one.