Sunday, September 24, 2006

National security and Howard Dean: villified and vindicated

My new-fangled biweekly column in the Philadelphia Inquirer's Sunday Currents section was launched today, and it seemed appropriate to goose the Democrats for their ongoing inability -- even with the wind at their backs -- to craft a consistent and resonant national security message. And I wrote the column even before Democratic chairman Howard Dean helpfully stepped forward to ratify my theme.

Last Friday, Dean and his GOP counterpart, Ken Mehlman, both wrote pieces for the Wall Street Journal's commentary page about the stakes in the '06 election. As conservative blogger Tom Bevan pointed out, Mehlman's first 642 words were about national security and the war on terror. And what did Dean do? He got around to the issue in his second-to-last paragraph, devoting 53 words to what is arguably the most important issue this autumn.

Yes, it can be argued that Mehlman's GOP rhetoric on national security is old and predictable and increasingly detached from Iraq realities. But at least it's a consistent, high-profile message, as opposed to Dean's disappearing act. On Friday Bevan wrote this, and I think he got it right:

"If Democrats want to take back control of Congress this November, one thing they cannot do is to let Republicans draw a clear line between the two parties on national security and to present voters with a distinct choice between who is more serious, more attentive, and more committed to protecting the country. They need to try and blur the line and muddy the choice by talking about national security (and Iraq) every chance they get. That's why Ken Mehlman must have been so happy to see his op-ed running alongside Howard Dean's this morning in one of the largest papers in the country. By essentially ignoring the issue of national security and the war on terror, Howard Dean helped draw exactly the contrast Republicans want (and need) most this year."

And one prominent liberal blogger's verdict on Dean was basically no different. Kevin Drum at The Washington Monthly, noting that Dean devoted most of his space to the standard Democratic domestic issues (stagnant wages, health care, higher taxes on the rich) proceeded to eviscerate the guy. Speaking directly to Dean, he wrote:

"Do you really think (the Wall Street Journal) is the place for a thousand words of pitchfork-waving, tax-cut-hating, populist agit-prop? Even if you couldn't bring yourself to write about national security, don't you think you could have picked a slightly better approach to win the hearts and minds of the conservative business titans who read the Journal? Know your audience. This is Persuasion 101. Can't anybody play this game anymore?"

Which is what, in my print column, I was wondering as well.


But let's cut Dean a break on one topical matter:

It was hard to miss the big weekend news about the war in Iraq. It seems that, yet again, there is fresh evidence flatly contradicting President Bush's assertion that the war, and the removal of Saddam Hussein, has made America safer. It appears that some authoritative voices are now saying that, contrary to Bush's '06 election argument, the American invasion and occupation have actually made the world less safe, by spawning a new generation of Islamic radicals and ratcheting up the post-9/11 terrorist threat.

Is this just another Bush-hating argument from liberals and Democrats (or, as the GOP message shop prefers to call them, "Defeatocrats")?

Nope. This is the consensus view of the 16 federal spy agencies that work for President Bush. As reported here, a classified report containing this finding, a National Intelligence Estimate, was completed during the spring, and constitutes the first comprehensive assessment by those agencies since the Irar war was launched. Howard Dean, as a Democratic presidential candidate, was pilloried in December 2003 when he said the world wasn't necessarily safer in the wake of Saddam's capture. Now it appears that Bush's own intelligence authorities see it the same way.

One might wonder how Bush defenders could explain away this one, but Al Haig did give it a try this morning. (You might remember Al Haig; he was Reagan's first secretary of state.) Haig went on CNN and said that the story was "written especially for the Democratic Party." Which is news to me, because I had no idea that Dean was so tight with the 16 spy agencies that they would bend their views to accomodate him.