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McCain on Waterboarding

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I’m not particularly impressed with the recent debates in YouTube format hosted by CNN. The cable network’s management of the process has involved too many serious errors in judgment for that to go unnoticed. But in the end it’s the candidates’ responses which mark the low point. Even so, these debates have their moments, and I find on occasion there are passages that are truly inspirational. Last night, John McCain’s response to a question about waterboarding was just that. He found the right pitch and the right moral voice on the question, and his words lifted the debate up for a few minutes on what continues to emerge, just as John McCain says, as the defining issue in the 2008 campaign. This is the not-to-be-missed exchange from the debate.

The moral clarity and vision of McCain’s answer was perfectly balanced by the bankruptcy of Romney’s. In the end, the former Massachusetts governor ducks by saying that he would turn to his ultimate guru for guidance: Cofer Black, the Vice Chair of Blackwater USA. Mr. Black is known for his bravado, including a pledge to the White House that he would send them Osama bin Laden’s head in a box packed with dry ice. But of course it was Mr. Black who failed in efforts to catch bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders as they disappeared into the caves and ravines of Tora Bora. He moved from that high accomplishment to Blackwater, which is now engulfed in a series of scandals reflecting questionable management practices. Moreover, CIA officers complain that Black’s move to Blackwater entailed the privatization of vital national security relationships for personal profit, another hallmark of abuse in the Bush Administration.

McCain is turning for guidance to American military tradition and ethics. Romey on the other hand draws on Hollywood cartoons and adventurists. It’s quite a difference. And at the moment, it looks like the Republican base will take Chuck Norris over George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower any day.

Among the other candidates in the Republican field, Huckabee is clearly in the process of transforming his position on the torture question. He’s drawing closer to John McCain’s view with each passing debate. I’ll go out on a limb and say we’ll soon see three Republican candidates taking a clear-cut anti-torture position: John McCain, Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee. Not coincidentally, the first two are the Republican candidates who consistently draw the most support from the active-duty military. Huckabee is clearly intent on pitching more effectively to the same community.

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