Monday, August 14, 2006

SPECIAL REPORT: Can the Dems steal the security issue?

(Note to readers: We're trying something a bit different today. I originally wrote the column below for the newspaper, but we decided to post it today directly on What follows is the most complete version, with some web links and extra material woven within. A somewhat more modest version might run in print tomorrow.)

Stung by incessant bad news from Iraq, and mindful that a restive electorate might sink the congressional GOP in November, the Bush administration and its political lieutenants are trying to recoup by reviving their old charge that the Democrats are national-security sissies who should not be trusted with power.

Republicans cite the defeat in Connecticut last Tuesday of hawkish Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, who fell in a party primary to Iraq critic Ned Lamont. Vice President Cheney says Lieberman’s defeat is proof that Democrats are soft on “al-Qaeda types.” GOP chairman Ken Mehlman says Democrats have adopted an “isolationist, defeatist, blame-America-first philosophy.”

And Republican strategists believe that the foiled terrorist plot in Britain will buttress their political argument, and convince wavering voters that, at this critical hour, President Bush’s party is more credible on the issue of keeping us safe. As Bush spokesman Tony Snow contended the other day, Democrats on the “extreme left” are waving “a white flag in the war on terror.”

But will this traditional GOP message, which worked so well in 2002 and 2004, pack the same punch in 2006? Not necessarily.

John Zogby, the independent pollster who closely tracks public opinion on Bush and the Iraq war, said Friday: “The old Republican charge still has some traction, and, frankly, it’s maybe the one ace in the hole that Republicans potentially have this year. But the public’s mood has changed a lot since 2002 and 2004, and that’s why attacking the Democrats that way could be very, very risky.”

Today, unlike in previous election seasons, both Bush and the war are broadly unpopular. Indeed, there is strong polling evidence that antipathy toward the war has severely undercut Bush’s standing as a credible prosecutor of the war on terror.

Bottom line: Opposing Bush and the war is not an “extremist” position. Rather, it has become the centrist position in American politics, as evidenced by all the polls. And Democrats, mindful of the majority sentiment, are previewing an autumn campaign that seeks to paint Bush as a president whose conflict in Iraq, with its $300 billion price tag and its drain on military assets, has actually weakened our global battle against terrorism.

Consider a new Democratic ad, which debuted today. The party clearly believes it can discredit the GOP on its traditionally strongest issue. The ad talks of failures in Iraq ("not enough body armor, Humvees..."), the undiminished threats of Iran and North Korea, and gaps in homeland security (only six percent of port containers are inspected). The tag line: "Feel safer? Vote for change."

But Republicans operatives believe they can still triumph by labeling Democrats as "cut-and-run" wimps who would embolden the terrorists by simply pulling out of Iraq; meanwhile, the GOP has apparently decided that "stay the course" is a rhetorical loser. The new slogan, unveiled by Mehlman yesterday, is "adapt to win."

And Lieberman, now running for reelection as an independent with White House encouragement, is echoing the GOP line. He argued last Thursday that if the Lamont troops-out stance prevails, "it will be taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes in this plot hatched in England."

Here's the hitch, however: The latest polls signal that Lieberman and the GOP are not the centrists in this debate:

1. Early last week, an ABC-Washington Post survey reported that, for the first time, Bush is faulted more than he is praised for his handling of the war on terror. Fifty percent of those surveyed view him negatively, 47 percent positively. Also, when people were asked which party they favored to fight that global war, 46 percent cited the Democrats, 38 percent the Republicans. (Only 18 percent of the respondents described themselves as liberals.)

2. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll, released Friday, reported that Bush’s job-approval rating now stands at 33 percent. In the South, normally the GOP’s strongest and most militarily oriented region, his approval rating is 34 percent. Nationwide, 19 percent of those who voted for Bush in 2004 now intend to back Democratic congressional candidates in November.

3. A CNN poll released Wednesday reported that 61 percent of all respondents want to begin troop withdrawals from Iraq or pull them all out. Fifty-seven percent want to set a timetable.

4. And another poll, released Thursday, reported that 61 percent of swing-voting independents dislike Bush’s job performance; also, 60 percent of independents want the troops out either immediately or within a year, while only 29 percent of independents back Bush’s “stay the course” policy. All those findings come from the Fox News.

Other evidence undercuts the GOP contention that Lieberman’s loss is evidence of a broader plot by intolerant liberals and bloggers to “purge” the party of its tough-on-terror hawks. If such a plot exists, other Senate Democrats who voted yes on the war would have been targeted. Yet no major primary insurgencies were launched this year against reelection candidates Hillary Clinton in New York, Bill Nelson in Florida, Ben Nelson in Nebraska, or Maria Cantwell in Washington.

Nor can it be factually argued that Lamont’s win signals a Democratic takeover by (in the words of conservative analyst Michael Barone) “socialist intellectuals” who don’t root for America. A CBS-New York Times exit poll showed that Lamont won because his anti-Bush, antiwar message resonated beyond his base. He won 39 percent of self-described moderates, and even 35 percent of conservatives.

All told, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid argued during a Friday conference call with journalists: “Anyone who suggests that the people of Connecticut, by voting for Lamont, were somehow supporting terrorists — I don’t think that’s credible.” Reid is seconded in his opinion by Tom Ridge, the ex-Homeland Security chief and ex-GOP governor; in the latest issue of Newsweek, Ridge says of Cheney's attempt to paint antiwar voters as soft on al-Qaeda types, "That may be the way the vice president sees it, but I don’t see it that way, and I don’t think most Americans see it that way.”

Suzanne Nossel, a Democratic security analyst and former aide to U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, asserted the other day that, as evidenced by the polls, “liberals need not fear that Lieberman’s loss will … paint the party as spineless.” Rather, she views his defeat as a warning to any incumbent who simply wants to “stay the course.” She thinks that restive voters will respond to those Democrats who demand “more effective diplomacy, more robust homeland security, and an end to failed (Iraq) policies.”

Chuck Schumer, the New York senator who is helming the Democratic bid to take the Senate, tested a political message Friday during that phone chat with the press: “Are we better off or worse off than we were five years ago, in terms of safety?” For instance, in the wake of the British terror arrests, the Democrats noted that the nonpartisan 9/11 Commission last winter awarded Bush an F for failing to improve airline-passenger prescreening, and low marks on other security issues.

Neverthless, Republicans still believe that they have potent arguments, that they can assail Democrats for opposing what they call crucial terrorist-fighting weaponry, such as the Patriot Act and domestic surveillance. Expect that to be a top GOP theme this autumn. Hence GOP chairman Mehlman’s assertion last Wednesday, in pivotal Ohio, that Democratic Senate candidate Sherrod Brown doesn’t favor “giving our intelligence community every tool it needs to find terrorists wherever they are hiding.” He spoke in a similar fashion yesterday on NBC, contending that Democrats want "to weaken the tools and surrender the tools that are critical to keeping Americans safe."

One caveat: the GOP's vulnerability on Iraq remains, and its spinner know it. Today, Mehlman's people sent out an email which purported to show that various foreign policy experts are feeling more kindly to Bush these days. They cited Harvard University professor Joseph Nye, who said in a July 17 Newsweek column: "In his second term, Bush has made some efforts to change the debate on Iraq by publicly acknowledging new facts." Well, I just looked up the column. It turns out that Nye's central point was that Bush has a hard time accepting factual reality. Here's what Mehlman's people did not quote: "Bush's impatience hinders learning....That impatient temperament also contributed to the organizational process Bush put in place that discouraged learning....His case remains open, but he is running out of time."

Perhaps Democrats are right to feel confident, and right to believe that Bush’s failures in Iraq will diminish his security credentials in the runup to the November elections. Perhaps the Democrats will be able to withstand all GOP efforts to equate the Lamont Democrats with the George McGovern forces who lost 49 states in 1972. But, for the Democrats, one cautionary lesson of ‘72 was that even though most Americans were fed up with war (in that case, Vietnam), they were still wary about simply bringing the troops home. Richard Nixon, touting his incremental "peace with honor" policy, won re-election in a landslide.

Pollster Zogby said: “It won’t be enough for Democrats to exploit the fact that, in the eyes of most voters and the world, Iraq has weakened us in fighting the war on terror. Democrats still need to offer more clarity. Voters want to know, ‘OK, troops out, we agree, but what would you do besides that? What’s your credible exit strategy?'

"People are ready to listen," he said. "The center of gravity in America has shifted. Opposing the war is good centrist politics.”