A reporter-friend came up to me at the Constitution Project’s gala before Attorney General Eric Holder’s keynote speech. He didn’t look happy. “You’re not going to like this,” he said.
Sure enough. Holder’s speech was in the classic telling-hard-truths-to-your-base mold. Once the Obama administration decided to retain the military commissions, Holder became obligated to defend the decision (or quit). What he isn’t obligated to do is go in front of the only people who desperately want to support him — Ginny Sloan, the driving force behind the Project, got a round of applause introducing Holder by pledging the community’s support for keeping Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a civilian trial — and aggressively assert the wisdom, propriety and virtues of… well, of hearsay evidence, among other things. Nor for pledging not to try American citizens like Anwar al-Awlaki in military commissions while neglecting to mention that instead they’ll be targeted for assassination. Nor for saying that the administration needs both courts and commissions to “bring every terrorist to justice” while neglecting to mention the 48 people it refuses to either try in any forum or release.
Holder instead provided a speech that led by saying he knows the country is at war and he intends to help win the war and we need every tool to win the war. It’s not wrong. But it is gratuitous, and he’s saying it because Jeff Sessions and Mitch McConnell and them have been smearing him with the canard that he doesn’t understand it. Not only does Holder reply to that undignified assault, but he then implicitly hands the canard over to his supporters in the civil libertarian community, the people who have his back, saying war war war as if they don’t understand there’s a war on, and as if they haven’t been arguing for nine years that the U.S. can wage it effectively without compromising its commitment to the rule of law.
As a strategy, it makes no sense. Holder will never win any allies on the right. He can defeat them and he can disarm them, as he did in yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. But he will never persuade them, because they are invested in his defeat. And he will never win their respect by rebuking the only people who are willing to support him and who are invested in his success.