Obama, Cheney and the Politics of Torture

Apr 23, 2009 10:16am

Dick Cheney’s pushback on torture this week is well-calibrated: It’s an issue on which public sentiment is somewhat more equivocal than President Obama’s own view. While most people oppose torture, that view is short of monolithic – and opposition softens if it’s presumed actually to work, as the former vice president argues.

This has been the case for years: Ask people if they support or oppose the use of torture, a straight up or down question, and majorities oppose it. But ask it with gradations and opposition is lower. And attach a direct positive attribute – possibly saving lives, or even definitely saving them – and opposition goes lower still.

Whether that kind of positive result can be demonstrated of course is highly debated. What’s clear is that the argument does resonate with some people who otherwise oppose the practice – data that illustrate the aim of Cheney’s approach.

Much focus the past week has been on waterboarding. In the latest specific data, a CNN poll in November 2007, 69 percent called it torture; fewer but still most, 58 percent, said the U.S. government should not allow it. Forty percent said it should be allowed.

Quite similarly, in an ABC/Post poll we did this January, 58 percent favored Obama’s position prohibiting the use of torture under any circumstances – while 40 percent again said there are cases in which it should be considered. We saw a big gender gap – women ruled torture out by 2-1; men divided evenly – and very big partisan and ideological splits. At the extremes, 77 percent of liberal Democrats rejected torture, while 60 percent of conservative Republicans said it should be considered in some cases.

There also have been differences of opinion by type of coercion. In a poll we did back in 2004, Americans by 78-21 percent said holding a terrorism suspect’s head under water was unacceptable, but by 66-33 percent the public saw sleep deprivation as acceptable. (Of a dozen items we tested, three were seen by majorities as acceptable – sleep deprivation; hooding, 57 percent; and noise bombing, 54 percent.)

Also prominently on the political plate now is whether the Obama administration should investigate whether any laws were broken in the Bush administration’s treatment of terrorism suspects. When we asked in January, the public split by 50-47 percent, with the expected partisan divisions: Democrats 69-30 percent, Republicans, 27-69 percent. (Independents divided, 45-53 percent.)

A review of questions on torture underscores the workings of what survey researchers call positive-attribute bias – how attaching a good outcome produces a different result. Back in 2005 we found 64 percent calling torture “unacceptable” as part of the U.S. campaign against terrorism, and in January, as noted, we found 58 percent support for Obama’s position not to use it regardless of the circumstance. But also in January, a Fox News poll found less opposition – 48 percent – when it asked about torture “that might protect the United States from terrorist attacks.” And Pew in February 2008 had just 30 percent calling torture “never justified” (as opposed to often, sometimes or rarely) when done “in order to gain important information” – a steady number in its polling since 2004.

Indeed in a November 2005 Newsweek poll, 58 percent supported torture “if it might lead to the prevention of a major terrorist attack.” And Fox, in 2002, got support at 52 percent – perhaps lower than you might expect, given the emotive language it used: “If innocent lives could be saved.”

Given the range of responses, there are political considerations on both sides of the debate. In the eyes of some Obama may gain stature for taking a stand they see as principled and moral; others, though, could see it as a “too liberal” position, perhaps calling into question the president’s credentials to counter terrorism effectively or even to serve his commander-in-chief function.

In the dispute with Cheney, however, Obama does have some clear advantages: After all, when Cheney left office three months ago, only 30 percent of Americans approved of the way he’d handled his job the previous eight years. Obama’s rating in most recent polls has been more than twice as high.

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