Lord knows that I have deep disagreements with Glenn Greenwald (not least on his extremely low opinion of me), but in fairness you’ve got to credit him with consistency. He hated Bush’s War on Terror policies, and he didn’t stop hating them just because Barack Obama became president. What I particularly appreciate is that Greenwald isn’t merely outraged by the intellectual hypocrisy of Obama’s supporters, he also acknowledges what might be called the emotional hypocrisy of those who admit the double standard exists. It’s not just that Bush’s critics opposed his policies, they cast his policies as anti-constitutional warmongering that posed a near-existential threat to the rule of law and human decency. When you listen to most of the handful of liberals who criticize Obama for what he’s doing, they almost uniformly criticize him more in sorrow than in anger. They’re intellectually troubled by what Obama is doing, but they see no reason to get worked up since there’s no real threat involved. It’s like they’re dismayed they have to concede a debating point, not that there’s anything to get really worked up about. As Jennifer Granholm puts it, no one really cares because liberals like her “trust” Obama.
Now, as someone Greenwald wouldn’t hesitate to dub a “warmonger,” I will admit that I think Obama’s drone policy is basically right, though I think there’s room for updating and reforming how we do this sort of thing. A little more transparency and accountability would be a healthy thing. But if you saw Bush’s actions as a fundamental threat to the fabric of democracy and the rule of law, it’s hard for me to see how you can yawn at what Obama is doing.
No doubt there are examples of hypocrisy on the conservative side of the scale, but it does seem to me that in the main this sort of double standard hits Republicans hardest. Woodrow Wilson abused his presidency far more than Richard Nixon ever dreamed, but it is considered a kind of crackpot obsession to point it out. FDR, too, was vastly more of an imperial president than Nixon or Reagan. But he is a saint. More to the point, the abuses of the Nixon presidency were largely made possible by the mechanisms established by Wilson and Roosevelt. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from the liberal Democratic senator Alan Cranston during the Watergate hearings. “Those who tried to warn us back at the beginning of the New Deal of the dangers of one-man rule that lay ahead on the path we were taking toward strong, centralized government may not have been so wrong.”
Two final observations. I think one of the interesting things about moments like this is how they illuminate a fundamental dynamic of American politics. When Bush was in office, it was very difficult to distinguish the far leftist from the mainstream liberal. Michael Moore was treated like a hero by the Democratic establishment in Washington. Maureen Dowd celebrated Cindy Sheehan’s “absolute” moral authority and Code Pink was treated with respect and deference by many outlets. The ACLU had no problem placing experts and quotes in frontpage stories and nightly news broadcasts. But when Democrats are in power, most liberals bend to the man in charge. Suddenly the ACLU is cast as more of a benignly idealistic and irrelevant force. Cindy Sheehan and Codepink haven’t changed their views, but they are now a fringe outfit. People like Greenwald, who were treated as the voice of the opposition under Bush, are now treated like problematic gadflies by the same liberals who once eagerly fell in line behind them. A similar phenomenon took place under Bush to be sure. Whatever position Bush took, all too often became the de facto conservative position. The key difference is that conservatives control precious few mainstream outlets and so the conversation looked very different from the average voter’s perspective — because it was.
Second, whatever the merits (and I think there are few) to the claim that conservatives and/or the GOP reflexively oppose ideas they would otherwise favor just because Obama supports them, this drone policy is a good counterexample. Despite some initially gleeful taunting of liberals over their hypocrisy — and Obama’s — most conservatives eventually came around to supporting Obama on his drone policy, at least in broad brushstrokes. I’m sure someone like Greenwald would dismiss this fact as nothing more than proof that warmongers care more about war than they care about partisanship (though we should remember these policies remain popular with the American people). But the conservatives have at least been consistent “warmongers.” The liberals who once denounced Bush’s actions as objectively evil and outrageous warmongering have switched simply because their guy is in the White House.