Two truisms in American politics: 1) The cover-up is worse than the crime, and 2) political credibility can quickly fall apart over a big flip-flop -- apparent or otherwise.
Embroiled now in a multi-front fight over the release of Bush-era memos on torture, Barack Obama is in danger of merging those two truisms into a third -- the flip-flop may be the ultimate political crime.
Five days before his inauguration, the then president-elect gave an interview where it seemed pretty clear that he wanted his administration to be forward-looking: He didn't appear inclined to go over the debate on CIA enhanced interrogation techniques -- and who in the Bush administration authorized them.
As a remarkably insightful analyst -- ahem! -- noted at the time:
Yet, [Obama's] willingness to let sleeping dogs lie on broader issues of eavesdropping and the treatment of terror suspects suggests either he more strongly supports the policies of his predecessor than he wants to admit -- or he's less inclined to second-guess those decisions now that he's about to occupy the same office.
Now, Gerald Ford chose to pardon Richard Nixon -- a decision that many saw ended up costing Ford the election against Carter. Most historians, however, see that as being the right decision: It would have put the country through a trial of a chief executive that would not necessarily have served a much greater purpose.
Obama might be thinking the same thing with respect to Bush administration officials.
And, in fact, it's a far more complicated situation this time around: By the time of Nixon's pardon, there had already been months of Watergate hearings -- with several individuals prosecuted and convicted for various crimes. Wrongdoing had already been exposed.
Whether Bush critics want to admit it or not, there is far greater ambiguity over the question of criminal culpability with respect to administration decisions. There is similar ambiguity on how much members of Congress knew and approved with respect to various interrogation techniques.
So, days before he was about to become president, Barack Obama "got it" on this issue. For reasons of both politics -- he didn't want to create a distraction while he was pursuing his agenda -- and precedent-setting policy, he thought it was a bad idea of going down the road of potentially prosecuting members of a previous administration.
But now, by releasing the Bush Justice Department, Obama has helped add fuel to a fire that he didn't want started in the first place. Furthermore, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel made the classic example of a Washington "gaffe" when he went on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." Emanuel said what was clearly reflective of his president's viewpoint:
"He believes that, look, as you saw in that statement he wrote, let's just take a step back. He came up with this and worked on this for about four weeks. Wrote that statement Wednesday night after he had made his decision and dictated what he wanted to see. And Thursday morning I saw him in the office, he was still editing it. He believes that people in good faith were operating with the guidance they were provided," Emanuel said.
What about those who devised the policy, [Stephanopoulos]I asked?
"Yeah, but those who devised the policy, he believes that they were, should not be prosecuted either," Emanuel said.
So, Emanuel makes a statement Sunday that is completely consistent with what Obama has been saying since before he became president. But those words caused the president's left base to go ballistic! That reaction, in turn, caused Obama to make a rare unforced error -- he clearly backtracked from Emanuel's (and his own) position on the issue and said that there could be a "further accounting."
Not surprisingly, he has opened the door to a fierce push-back from Dick Cheney, other Bush veterans, plus Republican members of Congress. Wednesday's Hilary Clinton-Dana Rohrbacher face-off over Cheney's demand for more memos is just one indication of how this controversy threatens to overwhelm other parts of the Obama agenda until its resolved.
But, worse, just as this administration is about to hit the 100-day mark, this flap -- accelerated by a flip-flop -- has left this president looking indecisive. Despite what the GOP has said about Obama's recent meetings with world leaders, indecisiveness is the worst way for a leader of the free world to look.
Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.