On Saturday night, Republican presidential candidates Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman found themselves in an unlikely alliance on an important foreign policy issue: torture. Responding to Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, both of whom expressed their support for waterboarding (which was banned by the Obama administration in 2009), both candidates emphatically declared that the practice was torture, not an “enhanced interrogation” technique. Paul decried waterboarding as “immoral” and “illegal under international law” while Huntsman also took the other candidates to task, saying, “We diminish our standing in the world and the values that we project that include liberty and democracy, human rights and open markets when we torture.”
Although Paul and Huntsman may seem like outliers among a field of GOP candidates who are leery of categorizing waterboarding as torture (or willing, like Michele Bachmann, to declare it “very effective”), they’re likely to find many allies among the general public. According to a recent PRRI survey, almost half of Americans (49%) agree that using torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can never be justified, compared to 43% who disagree. This plurality persists even though more Americans believe that harsh interrogation techniques like waterboarding provide important or critical information (44%) than believe that techniques like waterboarding provide little to no important information (37%).
Opposition to torture increases when Americans are asked to think about these interrogation methods through the lens of the Golden Rule. A majority (53%) of Americans say that we should never use methods against our enemies that we would not want used on American soldiers.
The conflict between Cain and Bachmann on the one hand and Paul and Huntsman on the other indicates that opinion is also divided between Republican voters. Even John McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee who himself suffered torture during the Vietnam War, disagreed with the classification of waterboarding as an “interrogation technique.” He tweeted: “Very disappointed by statements at SC GOP debate supporting waterboarding. Waterboarding is torture.”
Positions on torture like Cain and Bachmann’s are more likely to resonate with the Tea Party base than with Independent voters or even Republicans as a whole. Americans who identify with the Tea Party (66%) are significantly more likely than Republicans (53%), Independents (45%) and Democrats (33%) to believe that torture is sometimes justifiable. And when the question is put in terms of the Golden Rule—requiring respondents to face the idea of American soldiers being subjected to the same treatment—even Tea Party support falls.