The Civil Liberties Primary


Obama is an awful choice for civil libertarians in 2012--and so are most of his potential rivalsstatue of liberty full.jpg
Shortly after Barack Obama won in 2008, civil libertarians had reason to be cautiously optimistic. As a Senator he'd advocated decriminalizing marijuana. Campaigning for president, he promised to end excesses in the War on Terrorism. Unlike some Democrats, he didn't seem particularly interested in restricting the right to bear arms. If his positions on campaign finance reform and economic freedom left something to be desired, he'd at least won a mandate to reverse the Bush Administration's most egregious civil liberties violations, proving such a thing was possible in post-9/11 America.

That mandate has been squandered. Since his January 2009 inauguration, President Obama has embraced positions that he denounced as a candidate, presided over a War on Drugs every bit as absurd as it's always been, asserted the unchecked, unreviewable power to name American citizens enemy combatants and assassinate them, and launched a war without seeking Congressional authorization. His attorney general's efforts to live up to his boss' campaign rhetoric have been thwarted at every turn. And presiding over the disgraceful treatment of Bradley Manning, he has lost the right even to tout his record on detainee policy. On civil liberties, President Obama cannot be trusted.

But neither can many of the people vying to replace him. Newt Gingrich asserts that Muslims shouldn't be allowed to build a mosque in Lower Manhattan until Christians can build a church in Saudi Arabia. Mitt Romney wants to "double Gitmo." Most Republicans embrace the expansive view of executive power asserted by Presidents Bush and Obama. Good luck finding any viable Republican who wants to end the War on Drugs, and its ruinous effect on civil liberties.

Criticizing these people is easy - and the deserve blame for their wrongheaded actions in public life, but the American people are at fault too. For all the partisan rhetoric against President Bush and his excesses, and the Tea Party's invocations of the Constitution, there is actually a very small constituency that consistently gives a damn about civil liberties regardless of the party or clique of the people violating them. People who compared Bush to fascist dictators are largely silent as Obama assembles a record as troubling. Conservatives who insist that President Obama is allied with our Islamist enemy nevertheless think he should wield broad, unchecked powers as an executive.

In the months between now and the 2012 election, one of my projects will be making it marginally harder to ignore these issues. The Civil Liberties Primary will be a series of close looks at where the various candidates stand. Records will be examined. Questions will be asked. Hypocrisies will be exposed. A winner will be chosen. And I hope you'll participate. Is there an issue I should spotlight? An egregious stance taken by President Obama or one of his challengers? A question you'd like to see contenders answer? My email address is at the top of the page.

Image via Flickr user Sarae

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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