Gwen's Take: Politics Gets in the Way...Again

Posted: Thu, 06/05/2014 - 2:49pm

There are few important issues that are not clouded by a healthy injection of politics.

There is an important discussion to be had about the best way to wind down the nation’s longest war. There’s another complicated debate to be had about what trade-offs are worthwhile when it comes to government intervention in other countries, or in clean air at home, or in rescuing captured soldiers.

Even when it comes to straight-ahead politics, there ought to be room for voters to hear and understand the choices at hand. This week proved, once again, that this seldom occurs.

In a head-snapping turn of events, the handover of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl – held in Afghanistan since 2009 -- laid bare our worst instincts to take complicated events, add water, and turn them into exercises in finger-pointing.

The political uproar over the prisoner swap that won the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban captivity has intensified.

There are many unanswered questions about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture and his release in exchange for five high-value Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo. But the debate quickly veered to a predictable path -– with most Republicans using the episode to argue incompetence, and most Democrats falling generally silent.

It was Benghazi all over again (when four Americans including the U.S. ambassador to Libya were killed when their compound was overrun by terrorists).

The administration thought it had a compelling story to tell, except it was told in an incomplete and confusing way. Officials sent to explain raised even more questions, and reliable critics like Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham rushed to fill the void.

Sen. John McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, condemned the deal that released Sgt. Bergdahl.

Some of this was politics; some of this was pique. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, was unhappy that the administration failed to notify lawmakers of the upcoming Guantanamo prisoner swap as the law required.

But in what seemed like no time at all, what could have been a worthwhile discussion about the risks worth taking (and laws worth breaking) to wind down a war fell into partisan posturing.

The same thing happened just last week when the president announced a timetable for a troop drawdown in Afghanistan. Americans say it’s time to go, but politics dictated that the discussion devolve into a question about whether this was evidence of presidential weakness.

And even when the debate is supposed to be about politics, it often becomes about the smallest possible thing. Did Vladimir Putin say something sexist about Hillary Clinton, or did he signal he will have no respect for any future U.S. leader?

Did Republican Senator Thad Cochran overstay his welcome by running for a seventh Senate term from Mississippi? Or did a supporter of his opponent muddy the waters by sneaking into Cochran’s wife’s nursing home quarters to snap her picture, obscuring a real debate about what the Magnolia State wants – and doesn’t want – from Washington?

Even when the discussions are designed to be fluffy – as in Hillary Clinton’s soft-focus People Magazine cover story – her opponents make it airier yet by questioning whether she was leaning on a walker in the cover photo. (It was a chair.)

I guess my concern is that the lowest common denominator of debate always seems readily available, whether we are talking about war, peace, leadership or poolside pics.

Can’t we try just a little harder?