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Whose Issue Is Terrorism?

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By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 12, 2006

The aggressive Democratic response to this week's foiled terrorist plot reflects a widely shared view among party strategists that intensified attacks against President Bush represent the best chance to offset what historically has been a clear Republican advantage whenever national security issues become more prominent, Democratic officials said yesterday.

Less than three months before midterm congressional elections, many Democrats are trying to simultaneously express skepticism about Bush's Iraq war policy and project a message of resolve and strength against terrorism.

This was a feat that Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry did not accomplish in 2004. Democratic strategists said the combative rhetoric of the past 48 hours -- with party leaders saying that the Iraq war has left the country less prepared to meet the type of threats represented by the London plotters -- reflects lessons learned from studying the Massachusetts senator's defeat.

More than a dozen Democrats, for instance, criticized the GOP yesterday for refusing to implement all of the recommendations put forth by the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission. At the same time, Democratic leaders in Washington moved on several fronts to accuse Republicans of exploiting terrorism fears for political gain -- and to warn that Democrats will respond to weak-on-security attacks of the sort launched by Vice President Cheney on Wednesday.

In a conference call with reporters yesterday, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) said terrorism no longer works as a GOP issue. "If they are going to throw political bombs on the issue, we are going to answer loud and clear," Schumer said. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), in the same call, said Bush's policies on North Korea and the Middle East have made the United States less secure.

After Sept. 11, 2001, and again in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, most Democrats calculated that the safest political ground was next to Bush, supporting his policies. Even after many Democrats had turned sour on the war, in December 2003 most elected officials struck a bipartisan note in hailing the capture of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But many Democrats have concluded that that strategy on national security offered little protection and merely helped Republicans reinforce their reputation as the stronger party in meeting foreign threats. This view was bolstered in 2004, when many Democrats thought Kerry waited too long as his personal credibility and national security credentials alike were challenged by the attacks of the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Democratic campaign aide Phil Singer, who helped organize the Schumer-Reid attack, said: "In the past, Democrats have not responded vigorously when attacked on security. . . . We will not let them Swift Boat us again."

Party strategists also concluded that voters want clarity, which has been elusive for Democrats. Democrats remain divided on many terrorism-related issues, but the twin calls for a new approach in Iraq and the implementation of the Sept. 11 panel's recommendations represent efforts to find common ground.

The politics of terrorism, however, remain uncertain this fall. The latest Washington Post-ABC News polls indicated that terrorism had dropped lower on the list of voters' concerns heading into the final three months of the campaign, trumped by such issues as gas prices and Iraq. Few candidates were talking about terrorism as a major part of their campaign plan before the London plot, other than to tout support for stronger homeland security measures, which virtually every lawmaker backs. Schumer twice cited the Washington Post-ABC poll -- which showed Democrats with an edge when people were asked which party they trusted to handle terrorism issues -- as evidence the political tide has turned.

Still, some Democrats are worried. For starters, as one strategist noted, many high-profile Democrats are seen as doves. Guests planned for tomorrow's morning political shows include Connecticut Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont, who vaulted from obscurity on an antiwar message; Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), the first senator to call for the United States to pull out of Iraq; and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, an outspoken critic of the Iraq war since the early days of the 2004 presidential campaign.

Other Democrats said the bigger problem may be that Republicans are more skilled in using terrorism for political gain. Earlier this year, Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, telegraphed that national security issues would be the foundation of the 2006 GOP strategy. The past week showed how Republicans intend to execute the Rove plan.

The Republican National Committee circulated a memo last weekend saying no issue motivates conservative voters more than terrorism. It also stated that nothing generates "more negative feelings" among these voters than mentioning Democratic positions on fighting terrorism. At the same time, RNC officials were polishing fundraising appeals that, using the name of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and appealing to patriotism, asked for as much as $500 per person.

"Based on what we have seen, our base is very energized on this issue," said Brian Jones, an RNC spokesman.

Instantly upon Lamont's victory over incumbent Joseph I. Lieberman, a defender of the war, they began invoking the outcome of the Lamont-Lieberman primary to paint Democrats as defeatists and weak. The next day, Bush, Cheney and other administration officials were aware of the soon-to-be-thwarted plot in Britain.

Once the plot was revealed Thursday, Republicans pounced. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds said last night that "national Democrats are stone-cold guilty of engaging in a reckless and irresponsible pattern of neglect for the security of citizens." In a memo sent moments later, GOP candidates were told that "in the days to come, you should move to question your opponent's commitment to the defeat of terror."

Also yesterday, drawing a clear link between Iraq and terrorism, Bush condemned the deadly bombing in Najaf. "The terrorists in Iraq have again proven that they are enemies of all humanity," Bush said. Bush has not commented on most previous terrorist strikes in Iraq. Taken together, the week's events seemed designed to highlight the continued threat to the United States and to question the Democratic commitment to defending the country, said a top GOP strategist who would speak only anonymously about internal planning.

The strategist, who is involved in GOP efforts to capitalize on the issue of national security, said one of the big challenges in the months ahead will be "making sure the terrorism issue sticks to Iraq." With some GOP candidates distancing themselves from Bush's Iraq policy, the strategist said, it has been difficult marrying the issues of terrorism and Iraq. This is disturbing to top GOP officials because support for the war is low, and dropping, and Iraq is a bigger issue in many of the campaigns than the less-defined effort against terrorism, the strategist said.


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