John Nichols: A cruel and punishing GOP debate

2011-05-08T04:45:00Z 2012-05-22T17:34:56Z John Nichols: A cruel and punishing GOP debateJOHN NICHOLS | Cap Times associate editor | jnichols@madison.com madison.com

Waterboarding is torture.

But it is not the only cruel and unusual punishment.

Consider Thursday night’s “presidential” debate between Republican also-rans Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Gary Johnson and Ron Paul — a former governor, a former senator, a former CEO, another former governor and a former Libertarian Party nominee for the nation’s top job.

The first face-off between the Grand Old Party’s third stringers was so bereft of consequence that House Speaker John Boehner, spotted at a Washington steak house at the same time the Fox News-hosted debate was going on, allowed as how he would be satisfied to “read about it tomorrow.”

On a night when everyone who might actually end up as the party’s challenger to President Obama was otherwise engaged, the Republican remainders distinguished themselves with lines like Godfather’s Pizza king Cain’s response to a question about Afghanistan policy: “At this point, I don’t know all the facts.”

But the low light of the debate came when the issue of waterboarding arose.

Asked if they would authorize use of the torture technique, candidates Pawlenty, Cain and Santorum raised their hands to signal they were cool with violating the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

Santorum chirped, “Sure!”

Two years ago, when Pawlenty was not running for president, he refused to support waterboarding and expressed concern about the “damage it causes not only to the individual but to our values more broadly.” Now that he is seeking the GOP nod, Pawlenty’s onboard for torture and argues that President Obama should be grilled about “whether he does or doesn’t support those techniques.”

The debate audience applauded Pawlenty’s tortured response.

But Johnson and Paul refused to dismiss the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Paul went further, explaining that he opposed torture for practical reasons as well. Waterboarding techniques make no sense, the congressman said, “because you don’t achieve anything.”

Santorum leapt on that line. “Well, that’s simply not true, Ron. I mean, the fact is that some of this information that we have found out that led to Osama bin Laden actually came from these enhanced interrogation techniques,” Santorum said.

Paul was right. Santorum was wrong.

Who says? Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, former prisoner of war and a hyper-attentive observer of intelligence gathering with regard to the current “war on terror.”

Says McCain: “So far I know of no information that was obtained, that would have been useful, by advanced interrogation.”

Like Paul, McCain is dealing in fact as opposed to fantasy. As McCain noted, there is no evidence to suggest that details regarding bin Laden’s location were obtained by torturing prisoners. In fact, as he points out, information about the courier whose whereabouts led to the discovery of the al-Qaida leader appears to have been obtained from an “intercepted conversation between two individuals.”

That’s the bottom line pragmatically.

The bottom line legally is equally clear. As McCain says: “I stand on the side of the United States and by the Geneva conventions, of which we are signatories, which we were in violation of by waterboarding.”

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com

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