Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Democrats' security blanket

Tough and smart. Tough and smart.
Did I mention that Democratic leaders want you to think they are tough and smart?
Today, that buzz phrase permeated their rhetoric as they unveiled their long-awaited national security agenda -- Senator Evan Bayh, an '08 presidential hopeful, has also invoked tough-and-smart umpteen times in recent speeches -- and it's a signal that the minority party, in preparation for the '06 congressional elections, is intent on overhauling the soft-on-defense image that has dogged it for decades.
The goal is: No more jokes about John Kerry's 2004 flipflop gaffe, "I voted for it before I voted against it." No more laughing about how puny Michael Dukakis looked riding around in a tank (1988). No more references to Jimmy Carter's botched attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages, complete with photos of the charred choppers in the desert (1980). No more footage of George McGovern and his peace movement pals (1972). The goal is to get skeptical Americans to skip the past 30 years, and think of today's Democrats as heirs to the tough-guy Democratic traditions of FDR, Harry Truman, and JFK.
By releasing today's somewhat sketchy agenda, "Real Security: Protecting America and Restoring Our Leadership in the World," Senate and House Democratic leaders are clearly trying to avoid the party's fatal errors of 2002 - when, in the midst of congressional elections being staged in the shadow of 9/11, and with President Bush prepping the case for war in Iraq, Democrats basically tried to change the subject and run instead on domestic issues. They paid dearly on election day.
Democrats know that such a strategy won't wash this year; besides, with Bush and the GOP Congress down in the polls, the mood seems right for Democrats to challenge the governing party on the latter's issue turf.
As recently as 2003, a bipartisan poll showed that, by a margin of 30 percentage points, Americans favored the GOP as the party best capable of fighting the war on terror; currently, according to a new Time poll, the GOP is favored by only 10 points. Democrats know they need to close that gap even further, in order to lure back wary independents, particularly (in the words of Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg) "a large chunk of white non-college voters."
So, will the new Democratic security agenda do the trick? Depends on what you're looking for.
If you're hungering for great specificity, particularly with regard to the future status of U.S. troops in Iraq, the agenda will disappoint. The party is basically AWOL on that issue. It calls only for "the responsible redeployment of U.S. forces," without spelling out the terms (or timetable) under which that would be deemed advisable. Meanwhile, the agenda says that Democrats would "insist" that Iraqis make the necessary compromises for unity - which is basically what Bush is trying to do, with scant success today.
The liberal wing of the party might not be satisified with the Iraq provisions, because it would prefer a blunt vow to withdraw large numbers of troops, as a way to get the Iraqis to shape up.
The document also says that Democrats will "eliminate Osama bin Laden," hopefully by doubling the size of the Special Forces, but that's the extent of the information on how that task would be accomplished. That line seems to be intended more as a political slogan for the campaign, as a simple reminder that Bush hasn't done the job.
Democrats are arguably on more substantive ground with their homeland-security ideas. Their agenda says that Democrats would "immediately implement the recommendations of the independent, bipartisan 9/11 Commission, including securing national borders, ports, airports, and mass transit systems...Screen 100 percent of containers and cargo bound for the U.S. in ships or airplanes at the point of origin..." There is also a reference to the Dubai deal debacle: "Prevent outsourcing of critical components of our national security foreign interests that put America at risk."
There were signs today that Republicans are taking this Democratic effort quite seriously -- if only because they began to attack the agenda long before it came out. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi unveiled it at one p.m. today, yet Texas Senator John Cornyn was online with a pre-rebuttal at 7:18 a.m.
Cornyn cited the provisions, including securing the nation's ports, then scoffed: "These are all efforts that the administration and Republican Congress have implemented..."
But that statement is factually incorrect.
Thomas Kean, the 9/11 Commission co-chairman, said last autumn that homeland security was "not a priority for the government...A lot of things we need to do really to prevent another 9/11 just simply arent being done by the President or by the Congress." And according to a congressional study, only $560 million has been spent to help secure ports (as opposed to $18 billion for aviation safety). And only seven percent of cargo is reportedly screened for security purposes.
So Democrats might gain some traction from inaccurate GOP attacks, if only because a growing number of Americans seem so weary of the Republican message.
On the other hand, skeptics could read this agenda and conclude that the Democrats view Halliburton, Kellogg, Brown and Root, and other U.S. contractors abroad as a pernicious threat equal in magnitude to Iran and North Korea. The latter two nations receive exactly one boilerplate sentence: "Redouble efforts to stop nuclear weapons development.." (How? In what way would the Dems' approach differ from the Bush approach? No answer here.)
No wonder some of the Democrats' natural allies seem cool to this agenda. Here's the instant analysis from Rolling Stone magazine: "(I)f this is supposed to be the document that assures national-security minded voters that the Democrats are the more trustworthy party, it falls flat. This plan is the product of the Democrats' least-common-denominator thinking. Instead of bold vision it stinks of timidity -- and that's just not going to cut it."
If ultimately that's the verdict, who needs flak from John Cornyn?