Barack Obama shouldn’t expect an invitation from fellow Democrat Dick Blumenthal anytime soon: Blumenthal said in a New Haven stop that the president “may not want to come here” to stump for his U.S. Senate campaign, given how independent he claimed he’ll be if elected.
That turnabout in partisan loyalty emerged Monday night as Blumenthal continued tacking away from his liberal roots —including through newly expanded support for military tribunals for domestic terror suspects.
Blumenthal made the remarks following a 40-minute appearance before the Yale College Democrats. After serving as the state’s attorney general for 20 years, Connecticut’s most-visible politician is going after the seat held by departing U.S. Sen Chris Dodd—who pressed Obama and his top aides to practically move into Connecticut on his behalf while he was still trying to save his seat.
That was before Massachusetts.
During opening remarks, the Senate hopeful appeared to take a page out of newly elected Republican Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Scott Brown’s campaign notebook as he sought to distance himself from President Barack Obama. Blumenthal stressed his “record of independence” in fighting pharmaceutical giants, health insurance companies and Microsoft.
“Washington is broken,” he said more than once. “We need more people who are independent” and “willing to fight.”
Asked after his speech if he wants Obama to campaign for him, Blumenthal first ducked the question. Then he gave an answer that distanced himself from the embattled commander-in-chief. His remarks signaled the devaluation of Obama’s currency among campaigning Democrats. They may start distancing themselves from Obama or his aides in attempt to establish independence from a rock star campaigner turned problematic pol who failed to sway key elections when stumping in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts over the past year.
“Would you like President Obama to come to Connecticut to campaign on your behalf?” the Independent asked Blumenthal after his talk.
“I, you know, haven’t reached that point in making a decision one way or the other. I haven’t presumed to ask, I don’t know whether he would, and I don’t know whether we would ask. At this point it’s an open question.”
Would Obama’s presence be a plus or minus for your campaign at this point?
“I can’t comment at this point,” said Blumenthal, who’s rarely at a loss for words.
Then he quickly elaborated.
“The president of the United States is someone whom I deeply respect and admire,” Blumenthal said. “I have differences with him, and if elected, if I’m fortunate enough to be elected, I would take stands on the merits, but the main priority is fighting for the people of Connecticut.”
Blumenthal closed with a kicker that ramped up his claims of independence from the president.
“I will fight for Connecticut whether or not I agree or disagree with the president,” he said. “If I agree, I will side with him. If I disagree, I will oppose him. And he may not want to come to Connecticut if I take that view.”
Blumenthal is far more popular than President Obama in Connecticut, noted Doug Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, in a separate interview.
At the latest Q Poll on Jan. 14, Obama had a 55 percent approval rating in Connecticut. Blumenthal soared above him, with 84 percent approving of his job—the highest approval rating of any politician in the Q Poll’s history, except for former President George Bush after 9/11, according to Schwartz.
Schwartz called Blumenthal’s approval rating “incredible.”
“He really doesn’t need President Obama’s help,” Schwartz said. An anti-incumbent movement that has eroded the popularity of senators like Dodd does not appear have hurt attorneys general, Schwartz said.
“He hasn’t been tarred by the anti-incumbent feeling that there is towards Washington,” Schwartz said, because Blumenthal can’t be blamed for the bailout of large banks, for example, and he doesn’t set taxes or budgets.
Still, Blumenthal has been taking a distinctly anti-Washington tone, notably following the failure of Democrat Martha Coakley to gain election to former Sen. Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts seat. Coakley’s defeat to Brown sparked a fear that the Tea Party movement of right-wing, anti-big government activists may be powerful at the polls in other states, too.
Will Tea Party activists make a difference in Connecticut? Will they surface among the unaffiliated voters, who make up a whopping 43 percent of the state’s voters?
Schwartz said he hasn’t analyzed who makes up Connecticut’s bloc of independent voters. A recent CBS Poll found that most “Tea Party” sympathizers considered themselves Republican, not independent.
The Q Poll shows Blumenthal to be “in a very strong position” at this point, Schwartz said.
The Jan. 14 Q Poll indicated Blumenthal would “body slam” Republican candidates Linda McMahon and Rob Simmons, according to Schwartz. Blumenthal performed remarkably well among independent voters, taking at least 60 percent of the independent vote against either.
“For a Democrat, he’s also very popular among Republicans,” Schwartz added.
Meanwhile, on Yale’s campus, Blumenthal ran further away from Obama. The topic was terror trials.
His comments came in response to a student who asked how he’d be different from Sen. Dodd, who decided not to seek reelection amid plummeting popularity.
Blumenthal brought up the trials of domestic terrorism suspects.
Two weeks ago, Blumenthal came out against the Obama administration, and in chorus with his Republican opponents, in calling for self-described 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to be tried in a military tribunal, instead of in a criminal court. Click here to read the Independent‘s story .
The next day, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced his intention to try not just Mohammed, but alleged Christmas Day bomber Umar Abdulmutallab, as a criminal defendant in civilian court, too.
Monday, Blumenthal expanded his opposition to the president on the topic.
“My position is very different from the [Obama] administration’s,” he declared.
He said he believes the alleged Christmas Day bomber should be tried in a military tribunal, too. His comments came as the Obama administration stepped up an effort to fight Republican criticism on the issue.
Blumenthal served as U.S. Attorney for Connecticut in the late 1970s under then-President Jimmy Carter. He was asked after the speech if his support for a military tribunal extended to the alleged Christmas Day bomber, too. The conversation led to a debate with a young Democrat in the hallway.
Here’s the attorney general’s full answer:
“I have taken the position that there should be case-by-case review of each prosecuted terrorist to determine where a conviction can be best obtained after a fair trial, and punishment most severe. In the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that that case should be before a military tribunal because there, the defendant was a foreign national directed and trained by a foreign terrorist who was supported by a foreign government, and essentially an enemy combatant.
“I think the same argument could be applied to the Christmas bomber, although we know less there about the circumstances because some of the key facts may still be undisclosed.
“But, what I know now leads me to think that individual should be tried in a military tribunal as well,” Blumenthal concluded.
“But these are crimes committed on American soil,” interjected Yale sophomore Jeff Kaiser (glimpsed at far left in photo), who was listening nearby in the hallway. “Doesn’t the Constitution say that they should be tried in the American federal court system?”
“No,” replied Blumenthal. “Jurisdiction is one issue. The Constitution doesn’t require that an enemy combatant who attacks the whole country ... the question is, what is the nature of the attack? I think we need to know more about the Christmas bomber, but I know as a prosecutor that issues of jurisdiction can be important, but they’re often two places where jurisdiction can be proper.
“If it’s proper in both places,” then it becomes a “policy decision.”
Blumenthal said he is referring to a military tribunal established under the most recent legislation.
“But originally it was to try members of the military,” Kaiser said, “not to try enemy combatants.”
“Well, it can be adapted,” Blumenthal said.
Kaiser asked if Blumenthal knows Eugene Fidell, a professor at the Yale Law School who has publicly backed the Obama administration’s plan to use a federal court for the KSM trial.
“You know, as a prosecutor, I tried people who are pretty dangerous, so I have the utmost respect for civilian courts, and some of those terrorists should be tried in civilian courts,” Blumenthal responded. “By the way, civilian courts have convicted terrorists.”
“Is it that you don’t trust that the federal court system could adequately prosecute someone like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?” asked Kaiser. “What’s the fear?”
“I believe that he is an enemy combatant who should be tried in a military commission or tribunal with a fair trial, but one that will impose punishment swiftly without many of the costs of a civilian court,” Blumenthal replied.
“And you don’t think that sets a bad precedent?” Kaiser asked.
“No, because each one would be judged on its own,” said the attorney general.
“But precedent is so important in these situations,” Kaiser contended.
“So are facts,” said Blumenthal, ending the debate. “Facts are important.”
In a later interview, Kaiser said he didn’t know much about Blumenthal as a candidate, but when he heard Blumenthal’s stance on the terror trial during his remarks before the Yale Democrats, he had to disagree.
“There is no proof that military tribunals are harder on terror suspects,” Kaiser contended, citing a recent New Yorker article that convinced him of Attorney General Holder’s case for trying the 9/11 mastermind in federal court. Another point from the article by Jane Mayer that persuaded him: “The makeshift military-commission system set up by Bush to handle terrorism cases has never tried a murder case, let alone one as complex, or notorious, as that of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who will face the death penalty for the murder of nearly three thousand people.”
Civilian courts have a proven track record of handling terror trials, Kaiser reasoned. U.S. civilian courts have convicted 190 terrorists, Obama has said—including one former navy sailor in New Haven.
Despite their differences on the terror trial issue, Kaiser said he still supports Blumenthal. “I think he’s the only viable candidate to keep this seat where we’d like to keep it”—in Democrats’ hands, he said.
Kaiser doesn’t plan to vote for Blumenthal, however. He’s registered to vote in Pennsylvania.
Lesson Learned From Mass.
The evening visit to Yale also highlighted a difference views on the Scott Brown election.
Blumenthal referenced the election as he wrapped up a 20-minute stump speech.
“One of the lessons of Massachusetts,” he said, “is that people are angry and frustrated, and rightly so, because they fell that Washington is broken,” he said. “I agree with them.”
Yale junior Brian Bills begged to differ.
“The lessons of Massachusetts are that people are looking for real leadership,” Bills contended.
He got up and asked Blumenthal how he’d be a “bold, progressive leader” in Congress, in a climate where Senators appear afraid to go out on a limb alone. Blumenthal pointed to bold stances he’s taken in suing the federal government on the No Child Left Behind Act, and in pushing the federal government to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.
Bills said he agrees with Blumenthal on those issues, but “I would have loved to have heard something more specific about how he’s going to stand out from the pack.” He said he was hoping to hear something that would mark Blumenthal as “left of the Democratic consensus.”