Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Can the North Korean evil-doer save the GOP?

During the past two weeks, Republicans have been feeling a tad panicked, as if they were being propelled down a white-water river, careening straight for the waterfall without a raft or a paddle. Which is why they’re now clinging to the North Korea nuclear blast story as if it was the overhanging tree branch that could save them from the final plummet on election day.

Iraq is a mess, the Mark “Maf54” Foley scandal is an embarrassment (the latest CBS-New York Times poll says that the Democrats have become the preferred party of moral values), and the economy isn’t paying the GOP any political dividends…so here, courtesy of dictator Kim Jong Il, is perhaps the October development that will finally cause voting Americans to spurn those purportedly weak Democrats and instead take refuge beneath the Republicans’ dependable national security umbrella.

That’s the talk today in conservative circles. A poster on the redstate.com website asks hopefully, “Has North Korea just blown up the Democrats' best chance to capture the House?” Republicans, sensing that the nuclear story might boost their imperiled image as the tough national security party, are now combing through the voting records of Democratic candidates, to see who might be painted as soft on the Korean threat; sure enough, they’re already assailing Maryland senatorial candidate Ben Cardin for having voted, as a member of the House, to cut spending for a missile defense system. And they might find it useful that Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker in waiting, voted against the establishment of such a system; so did congressman Sherrod Brown, the Democratic senatorial candidate in winnable Ohio.

Meanwhile, the commentator Rich Lowry thinks the North Korean test is vivid proof that voters shouldn’t trust the Democrats with their lives: “Ned Lamont, the liberal hero who vanquished Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman in a Democratic primary in August, declared a few months ago that our nation is stronger when we ‘negotiate with our enemies.’ He thus neatly summarized post-9/11 Democratic foreign-policy thought in four words. The criminal regime of North Korea…has now issued a rejoinder to this foreign-policy axiom that measured 4.2 on the Richter scale.”

And conservative blogger and political analyst Tom Bevan puts it bluntly: “By almost any standard, the testing of a nuclear bomb by a rogue regime is a pretty significant event. It is also, one would hope, worthy of a great deal of attention and a far more serious debate than the one we've been having for the last ten days over a few pervy IMs from a gay Congressman. Obviously, with only 30 days or so left to the election, this represents a pretty big, and perhaps final opportunity for Republicans to put the focus back on national security….Republicans will be more than happy to sling mud back and forth and refight the issue of whose to blame over North Korea because it keeps the focus off Mark Foley and off Iraq. It may not be exactly the fight the GOP wanted to have for the final four weeks of the midterm election, but it will certainly do. Beggars, after all, can't be choosers.”

So the question is whether the North Korea story really has the potential to send the Republicans soaring northward in the polls. Will voters, perhaps sensing a threat to their safety, quickly forget their frustrations with the governing party and seek shelter within the Republicans’ protective embrace? Or will the boom above a faraway mountain turn out to be a bust for the GOP?

One political development is already evident: the Democrats have not gone into their traditional defense crouch. Quite the contrary, this time. They are confident that they can paint this event as a byproduct of the Bush misadventure in Iraq.

Rather than cede the dialogue to the GOP, they clearly feel that they can fight back on solid ground. It was noteworthy, in today’s New York Times, that the key Democratic talking point was most prominently articulated by Sam Nunn, the former Georgia senator who in his day was respected by both parties as a credibly hawkish policymaker. In just a few sentences, he argued that the North Korean test is proof of President Bush’s failure to make America safer: “What it tells you is that we started at the wrong end of the ‘axis of evil.’ We started with the least dangerous of the countries, Iraq, and we knew it at the time. And now we have to deal with that.”

Other Democrats are speaking in similar terms; Democratic senatorial candidate Bob Menendez, who is trying to shrug off scandal allegations and hang on to his New Jersey seat, put out a statement late yesterday, contending that the North Korean test “illustrates just how much the Bush administration’s incompetence has endangered our nation. We invaded Iraq, the country that didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, and ignored Iran and North Korea, the two that did.”

The GOP is already working to place much of the blame on Bill Clinton, by contending that his administration allowed the North Korean despot to run wild. They do have some raw material to work with: Clinton talked directly with the renegades, and those talks yielded a pact that the North Koreas soon began to cheat on, by setting up a secret uranium-enrichment program. The political argument here is that, if voters elect Democrats, they would choose to negotiate directly with enemies who will merely take advantage.

The potential downside to that argument, however, is that voters – already in a foul mood about the incumbent party – might not be so willing to re-debate the 1990s, not when they have six Bush years in the foreground. The Bush/GOP foreign policy record is on the ballot this year, not Clinton’s. And even if the issue is about whether it’s a sign of softness to talk directly with enemies, there are plenty of Republicans and intelligence experts who believe that Bush has been wrong not to talk to the North Koreans.

This past Sunday on ABC, Republican James Baker – who served the senior George Bush as secretary of state and is currently reviewing Iraq policy at the current president’s request – articulated his own philosophy: “I believe in talking to your enemies. It’s got to be hard-nosed, it’s got to be determined. You don’t give away anything, but in my view, it’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies.”

And career CIA official Donald Gregg, who served the senior Bush as a national security advisor and as ambassador to South Korea, made these scathing comments yesterday: “Why won't the Bush administration talk bilaterally and substantively with NK, as the Brits (and eventually the U.S.) did with Libya? Because the Bush administration sees diplomacy as something to be engaged in with another country as a reward for that country's good behavior. They seem not to see diplomacy as a tool to be used with antagonistic countries or parties, that might bring about an improvement in the behavior of such entities, and a resolution to the issues that trouble us. Thus we do not talk to Iran, Syria, Hezbollah or North Korea. We only talk to our friends - a huge mistake.”

With people like Baker and Gregg openly rebuking the administration, it's no surprise that the press is asking the White House whether it thinks it could have done more to halt or reverse the North Korean nuclear program, especially since Bush had declared three years ago that such weaponry would not be tolerated. That very question came up today. But Bush spokesman Tony Snow replied, "It's a silly question." When a reporter objected and said that, in fact, it was "a fair question," Snow explained that "you need to give presidents the benefit of the doubt when national security is involved."

You need to give presidents the benefit of the doubt...That was certainly an interesting remark, given the fact that, at 2:21 this afternoon, the Republican National Committee sent out an email with this subhead: "Clinton administration made a deal with North Korea and failed."

Defenders of the current President Bush will, of course, dismiss Baker and Gregg as anachronisms; at the very least, however, these remarks hint at disunity within the GOP camp, and undercut the notion that the North Korean test can be an election-eve boon to ailing Republicans. Iraq is a glaring and easily graspable vulnerability; and the nuances of Far East diplomacy, past and present, are too complex for the casual voter – unlike the nuances of the Foley scandal.

As one disconsolate conservative blogger remarks on redstate.com, “Even after this (North Korean) event, regardless of the coverage it generates, there will still be more people in the United States who can identify Maf54 and locate him on a map than can do the same for Kim Jong-Il.”