A Reprise of the Grand Old Party Line

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) was his genial self at a meeting with reporters yesterday morning, showing off his golf-ball-pattern tie and talking of a conversation he once had with Jack Nicklaus about the baby-blue cravat.

But 15 minutes later, Boehner had moved from the necktie to the jugular: He speculated that Democrats may be guilty of the capital crime of aiding and comforting the enemy.

"I listen to my Democrat friends, and I wonder if they're more interested in protecting terrorists than in protecting the American people," he said.

One of his listeners, offering Boehner the chance to rescind that charge, asked if he really meant to accuse Democrats of treason. "I said I wonder if they're more interested in protecting the terrorists," he replied, repeating more than clarifying. "They certainly don't want to take the terrorists on in the field."

The majority leader's charge of treachery was no accident. Two months before Election Day, Republicans have revived the technique used with great success in 2002 and 2004: suggesting that the loyal opposition is, well, not so loyal.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) seemed to have the same talking points yesterday. In a fight for his political life, Santorum worked himself into a rage on the Senate floor, hollering: "If you listen to the Democratic leader, our lesson is: . . . Let's put domestic politics ahead of the security of this country. That's the message."

The arrival of Treason Season, heralded by the charged address President Bush gave on Monday's 9/11 anniversary, is right on schedule.

Back in 2002, Bush declared on Sept. 23 that Senate Democrats were "not interested in the security of the American people." Republicans gained seats in the midterm elections.

Two years later to the day, Bush went to the Rose Garden to say that Democrats' statements about Iraq "can embolden an enemy." A few days earlier, Republican John Thune said the words of his opponent, Senate Democratic leader Thomas Daschle (S.D.), "embolden the enemy." Bush and Thune won in November.

The aid-and-comfort line may not work as well this time, if only because polls show broad disenchantment with Bush and congressional leadership. And, unlike in 2002, Republicans have unified control of the government and find their security agenda being hamstrung by GOP holdouts as well as Democrats. But don't discount the influence of Treason Season: A Zogby poll released yesterday showed Santorum closing the gap with Democratic challenger Bob Casey.

As is often the case, Vice President Cheney launched the current round of sedition suspicions. The idea "that we should withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq," he told NBC's Tim Russert on Sunday, "validates the strategy of the terrorists."

Bush picked up the thread in his televised address Monday night, saying: "The worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone. They will not leave us alone. They will follow us. . . . If we yield Iraq to men like bin Laden, our enemies will be emboldened." That was milder than Cheney, but not exactly the non-political speech the White House promised when it requested network time.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rushed to the floor yesterday morning to denounce this "ploy" by Bush, saying the president "obviously was more consumed by staying the course in Iraq and playing election-year partisan politics than changing direction."

This threw Santorum into a rage, resulting in a 15-minute tirade by the agitated Pennsylvanian. "The very people that planned the attacks are the people who are in Iraq," he stipulated, drawing a conclusion different from the one the Senate intelligence committee reached. He said Democrats "can't face the reality that we have a dangerous enemy out there, an enemy that wants to destroy everything we hold dear."

Boehner, giving reporters an off-camera briefing in his office, was decidedly calmer. In shirtsleeves and sipping a Diet Coke, he told the group coolly: "I have no fears about losing our majority. None." Five minutes later, after making and repeating his supposition that Democrats prefer terrorists to Americans, Boehner added somewhat incongruously that Democrats "are the ones out there making statements."

The flap landed 90 minutes later on Tony Snow's podium in the makeshift White House briefing room. The spokesman declined multiple invitations from the press to disavow Boehner's formulation. "Do you want to let a statement like this stand from a Republican leader of Congress?" NBC's David Gregory finally asked.

"I'll get back to you on it," he said.

The exasperated Gregory tried another tack: "Can you describe how it's possible to oppose the president on the war on Iraq without emboldening the terrorists?"

"Yes, absolutely," Snow said. But not if it means pulling out of Iraq. "That," the spokesman said, "would embolden the terrorists."

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