The president's announcement on detainees may help him with Congress, but will it make a difference in November?

Published September 7, 2006 2:12PM (EDT)

As Glenn Greewald wrote in Salon Wednesday, George W. Bush has just made life a little more difficult for Democrats -- and a handful of Republicans -- who oppose his plan for rights-lite military tribunals at Guantánamo Bay: By moving Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other high-level terrorism suspects to Guantánamo, the president changes the debate from the rights owed to some nameless and not-particularly-scary detainees to the rights owed to one of the alleged masterminds of 9/11.

But will Bush's move have much of an effect on November? That's clearly part of the plan. Just hours after the president's announcement Wednesday, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman was e-mailing supporters about al-Qaida's plot to obtain biological weapons and the ways in which "some Democrats in Washington" have "questioned why our government" needs the tools Bush wants to fight terrorism. It's all standard-issue, Democrats-are-soft-on-terror stuff: "They have questioned the terrorist surveillance program, and bragged about 'killing' the Patriot Act," Mehlman wrote. "The No. 2 Democrat in the Senate even likened America's interrogation practices to those in Nazi or Soviet concentration camps."

Will it work? They're pretty excited about it over at the National Review, where Mario Loyola says that Bush has "just pulled off one of the best maneuvers of his entire presidency." "Taken as a whole," Loyola writes, "the president's maneuver today turned the political tables completely around. He stole the terms of debate from the Democrats, and rewrote them, all in a single speech. It will be delightful to watch in coming days and hours as bewildered Democrats try to understand what just hit them, and then sort through the rubble of their anti-Bush national security strategy to see what, if anything, remains."

The Washington Post's Michael Abramowitz and Charles Babington are similarly impressed: Bush, they say, has surprised his critics and "demonstrated anew the power of even a weakened commander in chief to set the terms of national debate."

Well, maybe. For better or for worse, the manner in which we try terrorism suspects isn't exactly at the top of most Americans' minds. According to the latest Fox News poll, the economy and Iraq are the top two issues voters say they'll consider as they head to the polls in November. Terrorism, in the general sense, is third; the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo doesn't make the list at all. Worse still for Bush: Americans just aren't that afraid anymore. A New York Times/CBS News poll out today shows that only 22 percent of Americans are "very concerned" about the possibility of a terrorist attack where they live. And, in what the Times calls a "political paradox," the president's approval ratings tend to be lowest in the parts of the country where Americans fear terrorism most.

Now, will jamming Democrats on Guantánamo help raise the profile of terrorism as an issue? Sure it will, and that has been the point of all the fear-and-appeasement talk coming out of the White House and the Pentagon over the last week. As Peter Beinart argues in the New Republic, Republicans need November to be about a "choice" between their vision and their opponents' -- which is to say, not just a "referendum" on George W. Bush. The Republicans have seen the polls, and they know that they want that "choice" to be made on the issue of terrorism. If it's on any other issue facing the country, polls say that they lose. And if a complicit media lets them get away with making the question of military tribunals a Bushian false choice -- one about trying terrorists rather than setting them free instead of one about trying terrorists one way rather than another -- then the president's announcement will help the GOP on the issue more.

But we're betting the issue for most Americans will still be Iraq. The president can say what he wants about the attacks five years ago and the attacks that may come again someday. The polls and our own sense of things tell us that Americans care more about the soldiers who are dying every day in a war that shouldn't have begun and has no clear way of ending. Unless the president and his supporters can shift November's battlefield entirely -- that is, unless they can move it away from Iraq and toward the war on terrorism more generally -- then Bush's announcement about the detainees will prove to be a tactical victory in what is, again, the wrong war.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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