Michael Barone argues that the Bush Administration has made this yet another national security election, reframing the issues so that the dominant question on the minds of the American electorate is who will best keep this nation safe from the terrorists who are set to kill as many of us as possible. William Kristol agrees and says that the Democrats are once again walking into a trap.
On September 6, 2006, President Bush set the trap. He spoke in the East Room of the White House on the war on terror. He announced that 14 terrorist leaders and operatives, who had been held and questioned by the Central Intelligence Agency outside the United States, were being transferred to Guantánamo. He outlined some of the information acquired from the interrogations of men like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and explained that this information had contributed to disrupting terrorist plots here and abroad. In light of the Supreme Court’s Hamdan decision, the president asked Congress to pass legislation that would put this interrogation program, and trials before military tribunals for captured terrorists, on a surer legal footing.
Kristol is right here. The American people have a very clear choice in this election — between a party that would give Osama bin Laden more legal protections than Tony Soprano or a party that recognizes that this is war and we must not treat al-Qaeda with kid gloves. The Democrats’ reflexive opposition to everything Bush does has once again put them in a position of looking like the party of weakness. Bush’s decision to end the interrogation of al-Qaeda prisoners (a decision that is legally necessary due to the Hamdan decision) means that the Democrats no longer have the luxury of posturing and preening on national security issues. They have to make a stand, and that stand was one that puts them in a position of arguing on the side of terrorist rights.
Barone explains further:
But it still remains an issue individual Republican candidates can use in their campaigns. They can ask why their Democratic opponents don’t want tough interrogations of the likes of 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammed and why they want secret intelligence turned over to terrorists at their trials. That framing of the issue is not likely to favor Democrats.
The other issue comes from the most persistent partisan opponent of the administration, The New York Times, which revealed last December that the National Security Agency was conducting electronic surveillance of calls from suspected al-Qaida terrorists abroad to persons in the United States. The Times and many Democrats saw this as a terrible violation of Americans’ civil liberties. But polls suggest that most voters see it as simple common sense. When al-Qaida calls the United States, we shouldn’t hang up the phone. Bush has asked Congress to authorize such surveillance. The roll call votes will tell voters whose first priority is keeping America safe.
I think that Bush has sprung a political trap here. Every Democrat running in a red state is going to have to explain why they think it’s bad for the NSA to listen into our enemies when the 9/11 plot was coordinated through phone calls from Florida to Pakistan. The Democrats are going to have to explain why we shouldn’t be putting the screws to the likes of Khalid Sheik Mohammad. The American people instinctively understand we’re in a war against an intractable and deadly enemy. And once again the Democratic Party has put itself in a position where they’re demanding we play by Marquis of Queensbury rules. That puts the Republicans on the offensive and the Democrats in a corner.
Bush’s popularity among his base has increased dramatically over the past few days, and his average approval rating has finally gone above 40%. The Democrats have made the mistake of running against the President rather than running on their own merits — and with the war on terrorism taking the forefront and gas prices falling, that mistake ensures that they’ve little left to run on now.
Bush has had a lot of luck — the failed al-Qaeda airline plot served as a reminder of the threat of terrorism, the Democrats have been feckless, gas prices have fallen as global geopolitical concerns quiet, and the Supreme Court forced Bush’s hand on the enemy combatant issue. At the same time, there’s undoubtedly been a politically shrewd decision to use these opportunities to once again highlight the vital issue of national security. The Bush Administration has made some incredible political blunders — see Harriet Miers and Hurricane Katrina, but the Bush team has one hole card — the Democrats can be reliably certain to walk into the same trap over and over again.