Bush attacks Dems on security, again

In a replay of 2002, Republicans are using the Patriot Act battle to accuse Democrats of being wimps on national defense. But will it work this time?

Published December 20, 2005 12:05PM (EST)

President Bush barnstormed the country before the 2002 elections, claiming that Democrats were making America vulnerable to terrorist attacks. His reasoning played well on the stump, even if it skirted the facts.

"I ought to be able to do what is necessary to protect the American people," Bush declared at a rally in St. Louis days before the midterm elections. "Unfortunately, they -- some in the Senate -- have been captured by special interests." At the time, Democrats were delaying a vote on the new Department of Homeland Security over concerns that the bill's new rules would adversely affect federal employees. In Atlanta, Bush told a crowd, "Here we are with a threat to the United States' people, and we can't get us a Homeland Security bill."

According to pollsters, the president's ploy worked, painting Democrats as weak on defense. Never mind that the White House had originally opposed the Department of Homeland Security, or that Senate Democrats had always voiced their support for the new agency. By the time the ballots were counted, Republicans had regained control of the Senate and picked up seats in the House. Even a Vietnam veteran, Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., a triple amputee, lost his reelection bid after a GOP ad campaign claimed he had voted 11 times against homeland security.

Flash forward three years and a few months. Now President Bush is again accusing Senate Democrats of making the country vulnerable to terrorists -- this time by blocking a vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act because of a dispute over civil liberties protections. "The key provisions of this law are set to expire in two weeks. The terrorist threat to our country will not expire in two weeks," Bush announced in his weekly radio address on Saturday. On Monday, he told the White House press corps, "It is inexcusable for the United States Senate to let this Patriot Act expire."

The president's strategists are hoping for a repeat of history, even though the facts are, again, not exactly on their side. For several days, Senate Democrats have been offering to extend the current Patriot Act for three months while the final points on a new version are worked out, a proposal that has been rejected by Republican leaders. Concern over the new bill is also more widespread than the president has acknowledged. Four Republicans oppose the new version of the Patriot Act and are supporting the current filibuster -- Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Larry Craig of Idaho, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and John Sununu of New Hampshire.

"The fact that four members of the Senate on the Republican side were willing to stand up in the face of pressure from the White House ... means that there are a lot of concerns by those who did not stand up," said David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, who has opposed the Patriot Act as an attack on civil liberties. "It's unfair to suggest either that they are irresponsible or that they are ignorant."

Nonetheless, Republican strategists are hoping to use this dispute to refocus the nation's attention on the national security credentials of the Democrats. In the process, they hope to boost the president's poll numbers and set the stage for the 2006 midterm elections. "In 2002, the American people rejected politicians who blocked the Department of Homeland Security," announced Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman on Friday. "Democrats who blocked the Patriot Act to appease the hard left should beware."

This strategy worries some Democratic moderates, who see the party's national security credentials as its Achilles' heel.

In a memo last week, Democratic pollster Mark Penn warned, "Democrats need to be extremely careful to avoid inadvertently reinforcing the deficit on national security issues that played a large part in our 2002 and 2004 defeats." A recent report by the Truman National Security Project, a Democratic foreign policy group, found that over the last decade less than 30 percent of Americans identified Democrats as the most trusted party on national security, compared to more than 50 percent who trusted the Republicans. This reputation has skewed the ability of Democrats to argue complex national security issues, even when they have the facts on their side. "The Patriot Act is one of the most difficult cases, because a filibuster -- without a clear alternative proposal -- fits well into the Bush administration's false story of you're either for the president, or with the terrorists," said Matt Spence, the co-founder of the Truman Project.

Some Democrats feel the battle may already be lost. "Republicans have to thank their lucky stars that Democrats are taking this position," said Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist Democratic think tank. "I think the writing is on the wall with this one."

On Monday, however, Democratic senators began to push back, taking the floor of the Senate to express their indignation at the president's attacks. "It's an absurd argument," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "Who here in their right mind isn't going to do what's reasonable to prevent another 9/11?"

Some on Capitol Hill argued that the president's strategy would not work like it did in 2002. "What they are failing to take into account is the president's approval ratings are in the tank," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid, the minority leader. In 2002, more than 60 percent of the country approved of President Bush's job performance, and less than 40 percent of the country disapproved. In the latest polls, however, only 47 percent of the country approved of the president, and 52 percent of the country disapproved.

Most Democrats, and the four Senate Republicans, behind the filibuster, object to the compromise version of the Patriot Act that was agreed to by Republican leadership after a negotiation between the House and the Senate. This bill strips out protections that were included in the Senate version, which passed with bipartisan support. Under the Republican-brokered version, the government no longer has to justify certain types of record searches by claiming they concern a direct tie to espionage or international terrorism. It also relaxes the requirements of the government to notify a suspect if it secretly enters and searches his or her home.

On Monday, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., who had negotiated the disputed bill, said he hoped to find some way to reach a new compromise before the Christmas recess. On Dec. 31, many of the provisions of the original Patriot Act will expire.

Meanwhile, the chief Democratic critic of the Patriot Act, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., declared that the party would not be cowed by the president's threats to use the issue as a political cudgel. "I hope he backs off this clearly political behavior," said Feingold, in an interview after the president's press conference on Monday. "The political consequences don't matter when it comes to the job of getting this right."

That is a strong, principled statement from a political maverick. It remains unclear, however, whether the American voters will feel the same way when they go to the polls in 2006.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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