Friday, August 18, 2006

Remember "freedom is on the march?" How's that working out these days?

So there I was yesterday, trolling through a New York Times story about the current state of play in President Bush's Iraq democracy project, and after I had digested all the latest statistics about the expanding sectarian violence, the record-high number of roadside bomb attacks on U.S. soldiers, the soaring number of U.S. injuries, and the growing pessimism of defense intelligence officials -- after all that, I reached the most important info, down around the 20th paragraph. Here's how the article closed:

Yet some outside experts who have recently visited the White House said Bush administration officials were beginning to plan for the possibility that Iraq’s democratically elected government might not survive.

"Senior administration officials have acknowledged to me that they are considering alternatives other than democracy," said one military affairs expert who received an Iraq briefing at the White House last month and agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity. "Everybody in the administration is being quite circumspect...but you can sense their own concern that this is drifting away from democracy."

Naturally, the White House moved late yesterday to knock down that little news nugget, telling conservative commentator Rich Lowry that no such consideration of alternatives is being contemplated, and Lowry spread the word on the National Review website. But I think the Times item signals a lot of unrest and concern within the Bush administration about their chosen war; even the official White House line is that we still face "huge challenges" in Iraq. And the willingness of a White House briefee to leak this to the administration's number one enemy news outlet is also a signal that not everyone who deals with the White House feels obligated anymore to echo the company line on Iraq. Particularly when factual reality conflicts with that company line.

It's also impossible to imagine that the White House would officially confirm its strong concern for the viability of its Iraq democracy project on the eve of an election season. That would hardly buoy Bush's ratings, since only three weeks ago he was still voicing his dream of a "free and democratic Iraq." Nor would it help the imperiled Republican congressional candidates (particularly in Northeast swing districts) who are already burdened by the war. And an admission that the democracy project is in deep trouble would also put the squeeze on Bush's favorite independent/Democratic hawk, Joe Lieberman, who is trying to hang onto his Connecticut Senate job with Bush's virtual blessing; it was Lieberman, after all, who wrote last December that "the Iraqi people are in reach of a watershed modern, self-governing, self-securing nationhood."

On the other hand, even if the White House was to openly acknowledge that it is exploring "alternatives other than democracy," would that be such a big deal? After all, back when Bush was trying to sell the idea of invading Iraq, he didn't say it was part of any grand vision to build a democracy in the heart of the Middle East. The main rationale for war was not Woodrow Wilson idealism; it was the (now discredited) argument that Saddam Hussein needed to be removed because he was poised to strike America with WMDs. As Rich Lowry himself told me in a conversation we had several years ago, a democracy project would have been too tough a sell. No, Bush didn't start to stress the neoconservative dream about a democratic Iraq until his postwar woes began to pile up, when the search for WMDs came up empty -- and when it was clear that he would have to frame a new rationale.

Which means that, yes, an admission that the Maliki government might fail, that the democracy project itself might fail, would indeed compound Bush's political problems at home. And worse yet, such an admission might not be necessary. The new violence statistics, the news reports of spreading civil war tensions, and the impending release this autumn of a military study that will pinpoint U.S. failures in Iraq ("the results won't be pretty," one author says) -- all of these will enable '06 voters ( particularly the much-wooed "security moms") to draw their own conclusions, regardless of what the White House chooses to say.

And that seems to be happening already. As Republican pollster/strategist David Winston told the Washington Post today, married women in particular seem more concerned about Iraq than about the general terror threat. He said that, while many still support the mission, "they are increasingly unwilling to sustain the sort of sacrifices that we have to make over there."

Thursday, August 17, 2006

She ruled against Bush? She must be insane, senile, and Democratic

Now it's Anna Diggs Taylor's turn to be painted as a friend of terrorists and enemy of America.

Taylor, a federal judge in Michigan, decreed in a milestone ruling today that President Bush, by sanctioning and defending his warrantless domestic surveillance program, has managed to violate a congressional resolution, the separation-of-powers doctrine in the Constitution, the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, and federal statutory law. As she acidly argued, "the office of the Chief Executive has itself been created, with its powers, by the Constitution. There are no hereditary Kings in America..."

Taylor's court becomes the second federal judicial body to declare that Bush cannot simply do whatever he wants; as I wrote here back on June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court made the same argument when it ruled that Bush's special military tribunals for terrorist suspects violated both U.S. law and the 1949 Geneva Conventions. The high court said, in its Guantanamo case, that Bush didn't have a "blank check" to limit the legal rights of the accused, when laws and treaties said otherwise. Taylor echoed this kind of reasoning today, when she ruled that Bush's warrantless surveillance of Americans "indisputably" and "obviously" violated the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.

Anyway, there's no point in spending much time on Bush's latest judicial slapdown, not with all the breathless cable-friendly developments about Jon Benet in play today. Suffice it to say that, even though the plaintiffs against Bush included Larry Diamond (a former adviser to Bush's Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq) and writer Christopher Hitchens (a war hawk who recently called Iraq "a war to be proud of," Bush's defenders have quickly dismissed Taylor's message -- by focusing instead on the messenger.

Notwithstanding the fact that Taylor followed the general reasoning of the Supreme Court ruling on Guantanamo (in which 3 of the 5 majority judges were GOP appointees); and the fact that, in support of her ruling, she cited the reasoning of a federal district judge appointed by the senior George Bush; and the fact that, to support her ruling, she frequently quoted a key opinion by the late high court justice Lewis Powell, another Republican appointee -- despite all that, the Bush defenders have checked her bio and found what they wanted:

1. Taylor was named to the federal bench in President Jimmy Carter.
2. Also, she used to be married (until 1971) to a Democratic congressman.

Meanwhile, she is being dismissed elsewhere in the Bush-friendly blogosphere as "senile" (she is 74), as possibly insane, and as having written an opinion that echoes "the rhetoric of the moonbats."

This is what happens these days when a judge tries to defend the Constitution. At the very least, this ruling will refuel conservative activists' efforts to place more like-minded judges on the federal bench.

Dual loyalty is the American way

I have spoken on occasion about American politics to groups of foreign visitors, and they're always astounded to hear some of the bizarre factoids about our imperfect democracy.

Recently, for instance, somone asked me, "I hear that, in America, the state officials who supervise elections are actually partisans who have close ties to political parties. Is that really true?" To which I said, "Absolutely. In fact, some of these supervisers even work for the candidates who are running in the elections that they are supervising!" Looking aghast, the guy refused to believe my explanation of the dual loyalty tradition. I assured him that it was true.

I saw it confirmed last week in Connecticut, when the entire '06 state Democratic ticket assembled for a unity pep talk, and Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz (a Democratic candidate herself) was up there nodding and applauding all the anti-Bush rhetoric. Nobody in attendance, including the local press, seemed to think there was anything wierd about that.

I recalled all this today while reading this piece by Jill Lawrence of USA Today. She highlights an underreported story: Because, in our democracy, secretaries of state are openly identified as partisan Republicans or Democrats, and indeed because they get elected while wearing partisan labels, they have increasingly become political footballs. In the wake of charges that Katherine Harris in Florida and Ken Blackwell in Ohio both aided the GOP on ballot issues in 2000 and 2004 respectively (while both were holding positions in the Bush campaign), a number of Democratic groups are pushing hard this year to tilt the future playing fields by helping to finance secretary of state candidates in key battleground states. Those states include Iowa, Ohio, Colorado, Nevada (all pro-Bush in 2004), as well as Michigan and Minnesota (pro-Kerry).

The article quotes '08 presidential prospect Tom Vilsack, the governor of Iowa: "There's a growing concern about whether votes are cast and if, so, whether they're properly counted. We have to restore people's confidence in the system." Meanwhile, John McCain reportedly has been aiding GOP secretary of state candidates in Michigan, South Carolina, and New Mexico (the latter went narrowly for Bush in 2004, and narrowly against him in 2000).

New Mexico was a battleground in 2004, because the state GOP charged at the time that the secretary of state -- a Democrat -- was aiding her party by pushing rules that made it too easy for newly registered voters to participate. The Democratic secretary of state in Iowa was also hit with GOP complaints that he was bending absentee voting rules to drive up the Democratic vote. On the other side of the coin, I recall that the Republican secretaries of state in Nevada, Arizona, and Misouri were openly active in Bush's re-election campaign. In Ohio, Blackwell had two jobs: chief election official, and co-chairman of Bush's state campaign.

Maybe Blackwell was just being professional that year when he insisted that new voter registrations should not be accepted unless they were submitted only on paper stock of a certain weight. Or maybe not. The point is, secretaries of state with partisan labels are bound to rouse suspicions, particularly in a highly polarized environment. The perception problem is inescapable, and it will grow as national campaigns further their efforts to target those jobs for political gain.

Not long ago, a bipartisan group offered these comments: "We cannot build confidence in elections if secretaries of state responsible for certifying votes are simultaneously chairing political campaigns....To minimize the chance of election meltdown and to build public trust in the electoral process, nonpartisan structures of election administration are very important, and election administrators should be neutral, professional, and impartial....States could select a nonpartisan chief elections officer by having the individual subject to approval by a super-majority of two-thirds of one or both chambers of the state legislature. The nominee should receive clear bipartisan support. This selection process is likely to yield a respected consensus candidate or, at least, a nonpartisan candidate."

So concluded the Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired last autumn by Republican James Baker (the famed Bush family fixer), and Jimmy Carter (the famed Democratic one-termer). It's also worth pointing out (as noted here) that the nonpartisan election supervision model is employed by Canada, Spain, most emerging democracies...and Afghanistan. But in Washington, blue-ribbon reports are generally destined for oblivion. The current targeting of secretary of state races is evidence of that.

New Allen defense: He's poop, not a monkey

From the man who would be president, it just gets better.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, Virginia senator and GOP White House hopeful George Allen has been trying to defend himself after singling out a Democratic worker in the audience, and twice calling the young Indian-American "macaca," which is (a) a synonym for monkey, and/or (b) a common European racial slur. Allen followed this up by telling the guy, "Welcome to America," not knowing that he was a native Virginian. I said yesterday that Allen was basically blaming the press (surprise!) for his predicament.

But now we have a new defense, and this is not a parody:
Allen wasn't trying to call him a monkey or to racially slur him at all; rather, the senator was only trying to say that S. R. Sidarth was the equivalent of the doggy doo that you scrape off your shoe.

From the respected National Journal Hotline: "According to two Republicans who heard the word used, macaca was a mash-up of mohawk, referring to Sidarth's distinctive hair, and caca, Spanish slang for excrement." According to this explanation, members of Allen's entourage coined this nickname for Sidarth, who has been tracking Allen's speeches on behalf of Democratic opponent James Webb, and Allen picked it up. Therefore, it wasn't a racial putdown at all; as one Republican close to the campaign explained to the Hotline, Allen was trying to tell his overwhelmingly white audience that the dark-skinned man in their midst was really just "a s--thead."

Gaffes like this can dog a candidate; columnist Margaret Carlson takes the broader perspective here. After all, even if we accept the contention that Allen aides made up a word that coincidentally is a real synonym for a rhesus monkey...this still leaves us with Allen's best defense: That what he really meant to say was, "Welcome to America, s--thead!"

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Allen defense: I blame the press for my not knowing that I had called him a monkey

This is what I have always cherished about politicians: Whenever they screw up and embarrass themselves, they try to blame it on the media.

The latest is George Allen, the Republican senator from Virginia who is mapping an '08 presidential bid (see last Friday's post). His contribution to the art of scapegoating goes something like this: While stumping for re-election to the Senate the other day, he singles out a young guy in the overwhelmingly white crowd who is known to be working for his Democratic opponent. This guy, S.R. Sidarth, is dark-skinned, of Indian descent. Allen says, "This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is...Let's give a welcome to macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia." It turns out that macaca is a common term for a type of monkey; alternatively, it's a common racial slur. Allen later protests that he doesn't know what the term meant. Allen is also informed that his "welcome to America and the real world of Virginia" was a tad off base -- given the fact that the guy he singled out was an American born in Virginia.

So what did Allen say about all that? In a statement released yesterday, he absolved himself, saying that his comments "have been greatly misunderstood by members of the media."

This incident isn't likely to sink Allen's re-election bid; he's far ahead of Democrat James Webb, and his aw-shucks Reaganesque style is popular with the conservative base in Virginia (as is media-bashing). And let us not forget that Democratic Sen. Joe Biden got in trouble recently for his quip about not being able to go into a 7-11 without hearing an Indian accent. But I've often heard that, politically speaking, George Allen is not the sharpest knife in the GOP drawer, and this macaca incident may well underscore that perception.

You can watch this incident, via YouTube (Allen's remarks were captured by Sidarth, who follows Allen around and records him -- a standard practice these days that all campaigns employ). The web posting, in itself, is noteworthy. Not too many years ago, political observers were saying that, because C-Span seemed to be everywhere on the campaign trail, there was no way anymore for candidates to screw up or misspeak or just have a bad day without the world knowing about it. But C-Span is horse and buggy technology when compared to the Internet. Candidates beware, there is no place left to hide.


On the other hand, even we folks in the dead-tree media sometimes manage to record some doozies. What follows is perhaps the most entertaining candidate exchange of the year (as well as fresh evidence that the quality of our political dialogue continues to degenerate), courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Last week, the paper covered a radio debate between former U.S. Attorney J. B. Van Hollen and a county district attorney named Paul Wucher. They're competing for the GOP nomination for state attorney general.

OK, gentlemen:

"Will you ever listen? That's why you suck, Paul, because you only listen to people who agree with you."

"I don't suck. I resent that."

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

George hearts John, Bill disses Joe, Katherine trashes Katherine

What's next, hell freezing over? First the Red Sox win the World Series, and now George Will is praising John Kerry.

The mind reels. In his latest column, the veteran conservative columnist opines that the '04 Democratic candidate was actually correct during the last campaign when he insisted that effective law enforcement should be a key facet of the war against terrorism -- and that he has been proven correct by the British-Pakistani police work that uncovered the latest airplane plot.

As many of you may recall, Kerry was ridiculed by the Bush campaign for having what it called "a pre-9/11 mindset," and for generally being a girly man because he was insisting that military clout was not the only potential tool in the box. As Kerry himself contended early in 2004 (in a line approvingly quoted by Will), the war on terror is "primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world.''

An excerpt from Will's column: "The London plot against civil aviation confirmed a theme of an illuminating new book, Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. The theme is that better law enforcement, which probably could have prevented 9/11, is central to combating terrorism. F-16s are not useful tools against terrorism that issues from places such as Hamburg (where Mohamed Atta lived before dying in the North Tower of the World Trade Center) and High Wycombe, England. Cooperation between Pakistani and British law enforcement (the British draw upon useful experience combating IRA terrorism) has validated John Kerry's belief..."

Then he proceeds to fillet the Bush administration for continuing to assail Democratic "weakness" on the terror war and for continuing to assail Kerry's law-enforcement argument in particular, even in the wake of the British arrests. He views the administration's attitude as "delusional."

I await the vice president's charge that George Will is aiding and abetting the "al Qaeda types."


Amid all the words I have expended on the Joe Lieberman situation, none have addressed the fundamental horserace equation: Will he actually win this autumn as an independent, beating the official Connecticut Democratic candidate?

Here's the Yes argument: He keeps his primary voters, picks up the independent swing voters who either respect his seniority or respect his stubborness on the war, and picks up Republican voters who don't like the underwhelming GOP candidate (Alan Schlesinger, a guy with a documented history of gambling problems). Result: Lieberman gets more votes than Democrat Ned Lamont.

Here's another version of the Yes argument, from Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown, who has been closely tracking the Connecticut race: "Lamont, despite all the sound and fury, only won the group most likely to go his way -- Democratic primary voters -- by 4 percentage points, or 10,000 votes. It is important to remember that more than 20,000 independents switched their registration to Democratic in the weeks before the primary in order to vote in it. The betting is that the vast majority of them were anti-war folks backing Lamont. Therefore, the most likely independents for Ned are already included in the primary Lamont vote. The remaining independent pool is more likely to like Lieberman than might ordinarily be the case."

But the No argument has some merit. I certainly think it has some merit: Lamont wins a strong majority of the Democratic voters, as well as a pivotal share of independent voters -- most of whom (if the polls are accurate) are now seriously opposed to the Iraq war that Lieberman has long defended.

Paul Janensch, an associate journalism professor at Quinnipiac University, emailed me about this scenario the other day: "Lieberman and Schesinger...split the 'stay the course' vote, while Lamont draws independent and moderate Republican voters unhappy with the Bush administration, and wins." That's an interesting point about GOP voters. Why assume that they'll overwhelmingly back Lieberman or their own guy? Connecticut Republicans, like their counterparts elsewhere in the northeast, are not known for being lockstep neoconservatives.

Also, it's worth noting the closing passage in Robert Novak's column yesterday. The conservative pundit says that loyal Bush Republicans (there are still a few in Connecticut) might not necessarily be inspired to abandon Schlesinger for Lieberman, because Lieberman, while still inclined to defend Bush on the war, has nevertheless felt compelled to acknowledge various Bush mistakes in execution (in the hopes of at least drawing some Democrats). Conceivably, that kind of positioning -- coupled with his 90 percent Democratic voting record -- could limit his appeal to GOP voters.


And it appears that Lieberman can forget the idea of his old pal Bill Clinton bailing him out. Clinton stumped for his fellow Yalie during the primary, but this morning he severed the bond. On ABC, Clinton basically cast Joe into the enemy camp, contending that "almost no Democrats...agreed with his position, which was 'I want to attack Iraq whether or not they have weapons of mass destruction.' And his position was the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld position."

So let's review: During the primary, Lieberman needed Clinton to validate his standing as a Democrat. What does he do now, with the ex-president defining him as a Bush toady?
(Of course, one can also ask the question: If Clinton thinks that Lieberman's Iraq stance is the Bush stance, why did he go up there to campaign for him in the first place?)


Speaking of Lieberman, I was repeatedly amused while in Connecticut to hear politicos describe his losing primary campaign as "the second worst in America" this year.

I'd always ask, who has the worst-run campaign? And the answer always came back: Katherine Harris.

The same Katherine Harris who helped buoy George W. Bush at the finish line in Florida six years ago. She's currently running for the Senate in Florida...and, after three campaign managers and 25 departed staffers, she finds herself trailing her Democratic opponent by a whopping 35 points. Federal investigators are probing her relationship with a defense contractor who has pleaded guilty to bribing a congressman. Oh, and one other thing: Harris' current travel aide and personal assistant is an ex-jailbird who's currently on probation for having stolen money from an ex-employer.

This is why nonpartisan Washington analyst Stu Rothenberg rates the Harris campaign as "an utter, unabashed disaster" that "hasn't gotten off the ground and isn't likely to, this century."

If you want the total personal dish about the Harris meltdown, this piece is delicious.


I erred yesterday on this blog, when I quoted 9/11 Commission co-chairman Tom Kean as telling Newsweek that Dick Cheney was wrong to paint Connecticut's Lamont voters as aiders and abetters of terrorism. An alert reader points out today that Cheney was actually rebuked by former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge. Right quote, wrong Tom. I have corrected that reference in yesterday's post.

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.”