Imagine for a moment that the circumstances of Bowe Bergdahl's disappearance were uncontested. That he'd been captured in the midst of battlefield heroics five years ago, and that the Obama administration had undertaken the exact same response, culminating in a deal to secure his release in exchange for five Taliban detainees, and a Rose Garden announcement with Bergdahl's parents.
Any ensuing political debates would have been relatively narrow and complex. Did the swap make sense, or could it have been better-negotiated? Did President Obama have the authority to act without notifying Congress? Did his desire to shutter Guantanamo unduly influence his negotiating strategy and his final decision.
Now add the controversy surrounding Bergdahl's disappearance into the mix, and ask yourself how it changes those debates. To my mind, it doesn't change them at all, but instead raises a separate, legitimate question about the propriety of the White House's communications strategy. Why'd they do the Rose Garden thing? Did Susan Rice say he served with honor and distinction because that's the kind of pabulum public officials are used to peddling about U.S. soldiers, or because she'd been instructed to?
But that, too, would have been a pretty narrow debate.
And the problem for the diffuse conservative outrage industry is that nuanced debates over public relations strategies and the relative "value" of Guantanamo detainees probably wouldn't have satisfied bloodthirsty right-wingers. So rather than compartmentalize all of these worthy lines of inquiry, conservatives jumbled them all together and laced the amorphous controversy with a bunch of unseemly innuendo. I imagine many Republicans will come to regret this.
The original sin was to crosswire the question of the propriety of the administration's communication strategy with the issues surrounding the quality of the deal that secured his release. The answer to the former hinges on the conduct of the soldier himself. If Bergdahl was a deserter, he didn't deserve a hero's welcome. But conservatives decided to lace the debate over the terms of his rescue with doubts about his worthiness. The proposition of trading terrorists for a traitor isn't cursed with nuance. On the basis of third party testimonials, they rendered a verdict on his conduct; and on the basis of that verdict they concluded his rescue was misbegotten, turning the "leave no man behind" ethos on its head.
That was a moral and political error. It precipitated a deluge of ugly actions and pronouncements by conservatives and some elected Republicans, who couldn't resist the temptation to seize political advantage by feeding the right's reflexive impression that a massive scandal must be lying just below the surface. The problem, as is so often the case, is that the words and deeds that energize the political right strike other people as vicious and unsupportable.
Bill O'Reilly attacked Bergdahl's father for looking like a Muslim. Joe Scarborough criticized his parenting. Pulitzer Prize winning Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens handed the opening paragraphs of his Monday entry over to an anonymous former Special Forces operator calling for Bergdahl's death by firing squad. Officials in Bergdahl's hometown had to cancel a welcome home ceremony after being inundated with hateful right wing phone calls. And don't forget Benghazi. This political cartoon from the Salt Lake Tribune makes the same point.
Some Republicans in Congress recognize that it would be wise to untangle questions about Bergdahl's loyalty from the other, legitimate lines of inquiry. But it's probably too late at this point, particularly if they're unwilling to confront fellow travelers who hold that Bergdahl was worthless and, by implication, unworthy of rescue.
Before the damning accounts of Bowe Bergdahl's disappearance resurfaced, many of those same conservatives were using the fact of his captivity to attack the Obama administration with as much vehemence as they now use the fact of his release to do the same.
That speaks to the superficiality of their commitment to ideals other than embarrassing or delegitimizing the president—a few seconds of Googling a few weeks ago would've revealed the same allegations that so abruptly changed their minds after Bergdahl was released. And that in turn explains how they ended up so far out on a limb.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.