Thursday, December 22, 2005 - The GOP's Insecurity Card

David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). Read his blog at

Whenever the opportunity arises to remind the public of the political lows reached by George W. Bush and the GOP in the down-and-dirty 2002 congressional campaign, it's worth doing. And now is a particularly appropriate time to do so, for it appears that the Republicans and their conservative allies, peering ahead to the 2006 elections, are reprising the strategy that kept them in power on Capitol Hill three years ago.

A year after 9/11, Bush—who had vowed to end divisive politics in Washington—hit the campaign trail for Republican congressional candidates and hurled the most divisive rhetoric. He accused Democrats, who were insisting that the bill establishing the new Department of Homeland Security include the usual workplace protections for federal employees, of being “more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people.” In other words, as one reporter at the time quipped, Bush was “saying if you don't agree with me then I'm going to tell America you don't want to protect America.”

In recent days, the Right has again pumped up the volume on the charge that Democrats are willing to undermine national security to score political points. Led by Russell Feingold, Senate Democrats and four Republicans—Chuck Hagel, Lisa Murkowski, Larry Craig and John Sununu—blocked the renewal of a portion of the Patriot Act, citing civil liberties concerns. In response, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman charged, “By obstructing permanent renewal of the Patriot Act, Democrats are again putting politics before national security.” (Mehlman neglected to mention the GOP senators who voted for Feingold's filibuster. He also misrepresented the debate, for the bill blocked by the senators did not call for the “permanent renewal” of the Patriot Act. At issue was whether to extend several controversial provisions for four years.)

Senate majority leader Bill Frist compared the senators who thwarted the vote on the Patriot Act to those who have called for “retreat and defeat” in Iraq. Responding to the concern raised by lawmakers over the Bush-approved, warrant-free wiretapping of American citizens by the National Security Agency, Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, blasted the critics as liberals who are “attacking” the man who “is defending the United States of America.” (Not only liberal Democrats have voiced alarm over Bush's use of the NSA. Sen. Arlen Specter, the moderate Republican chair of the judiciary committee, called for hearings. Former Rep. Bob Barr, an arch-conservative, decried this domestic spying. And news reports noted that federal judge Royce Lamberth, a Reagan appointee who used to run the super-secret court that oversees the federal government's wiretapping efforts, had expressed misgivings about the NSA program.)

Bush, in a way, has been leading this parade. At a press conference on Monday, he implied that critics of the war who advocate disengagement are motivated by “politics or some focus group or some poll” and that they are undermining the troops. Last week he argued that discussing a timetable for withdrawal was anti-troops: “Whatever our differences in Washington, our men and women in uniform deserve to know that once our politicians vote to send them into harm's way, our support will be with them in good days and bad, and we will settle for nothing less than complete victory.” He also said at Monday's press conference that opponents of the current version of the Patriot Act were playing “politics with the Patriot Act." That is, he has refused to acknowledge there was a policy-minded basis for opposing this particular reauthorization of the Patriot Act. And in an effort to hammer those senators who supported the filibuster, both Bush and Frist opposed—unsuccessfully, it turns out —a temporary extension of the Patriot Act in order to allow more time for a compromise to be reached. The point: take advantage of an opportunity to charge the Democrats with endangering the nation if these provisions of the Patriot Act expire at the end of the month. Is this not putting politics ahead of policy?

But here's the message that Bush and Co. are trying to get out: anyone (read: Democrats) who question Bush's policies in Iraq and his decisions in the war on terrorism is placing partisan politics ahead of concern for the nation's safety and the wellbeing of US troops. (When I recently faced off against radio loudmouth Mike Gallagher on the Fox News Channel over John McCain's anti-torture measure, Gallagher accused me of being “anti-American” and claimed that legislators, including McCain and the other 89 senators who voted for the bill, were backing anti-torture provision—and undercutting the war on terrorism—merely for political advantage. Yes, he is that detached.) This is not-too-subtle demagoguery: Democrats don't care about national security; they're only attacking the Patriot Act, barking about the NSA's snooping, and questioning Bush's conduct of the war because they are more loyal to polls than to their obligation to safeguard the citizenry.

Certainly, most Ds and Rs pay an unhealthy amount of attention to public opinion. But I doubt that too many polls show that filibustering the Patriot Act is a winning issue for a politician. Or that calling for withdrawal is likely to guarantee victory for a candidate. (In fact, polls show that most Americans believe the war was a mistake but that they remain ambiguous about what should be done in Iraq. A majority has supported the notion of a timetable but has also been uncomfortable with withdrawing.) What Bush and his comrades are attempting to do is to position themselves as the principled policymakers and the Democrats and critics as nothing but partisan hacks willing to sell out national security (your safety!) for political gain. No, these debates are not about honest policy differences. It's a clash between patriots who care about protecting the country and weasels who care about focus groups.

With Bush's approval numbers worrisome for Republicans (even after the recent uptick) and the war in Iraq still unpopular (even after the latest PR blitz), this is a rather useful framework for Republicans nervous about the coming elections (though their nervousness ought to be tempered by the knowledge that most congressional districts are gerrymandered to prevent competitive races). Best of all (for Republicans), this framework has worked previously—in the aforementioned campaign of 2002.

The GOP's 2002 crusade to depict Democrats as politicians rather than protectors hit rock-bottom in Georgia, where Republicans were trying to unseat Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, a Vietnam vet who had lost three limbs to a grenade. One Republican TV ad flashed photos of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein as it assailed Cleland for voting against “homeland security.” At a fundraiser for then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss, Cleland's Republican foe, Bush excoriated Democrats for trying to block Bush from one of his “most solemn duties, which is to protect the homeland.”

In those elections, the Republicans ended up retaining their control of the House and regaining control of the Senate. Chambliss beat Cleland. Afterward, Bush claimed the Republican campaign had been based on a “positive” tone. He was wrong about that. But he and his party-mates had seen how far they could go in branding Democrats as caring more about politics than defending America. Well, here they go again.

And this time it will cost them more than the Senate and the House; it just may cost them their Party...and that is only the beginning of what their actions are going to cost them!


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