By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 19, 2002
AUSTIN, Jan. 18 -- President Bush's top political adviser said today that Republicans will make the president's handling of the war on terrorism the centerpiece of their strategy to win back the Senate and keep control of the House in this year's midterm elections.
"We can go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America," Karl Rove said at the Republican National Committee meeting here.
Rove's remarks are the first time an administration official has said the GOP will use the war as a partisan issue. Until now, Bush has stressed that the fight against terrorism is a bipartisan and unifying issue for the country.
Less than two weeks ago, Bush said at a town meeting in Ontario, Calif.: "The nation is united and there is a resolve and a spirit that is just so fantastic to feel. And I am obviously grateful to be the president of such a strong and vibrant land. We have responded to the issues abroad with unanimity and clarity of purpose and resolve."
Rove's remarks infuriated Democrats, who have sought to align themselves in full support of the administration regarding the conduct of the war.
"If the Bush White House now politicizes the war, that would be nothing short of despicable," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence McAuliffe. "The Democratic leaders have stood with this president on this war on terrorism, and for Karl Rove to make it political would be an affront to the integrity of the U.S. military."
House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she was "really saddened by the tenor of the remarks," noting that she begins every speech by saying: "We stand side by side with President Bush on the war on terrorism."
"We would have hoped that we all strive for unity on every front and try to do this in a bipartisan way when it comes to the war on terrorism," she added.
Rove said in an interview that he was not suggesting Democrats would do a bad job of pressing the war against terrorism. "I'm not talking about them," he said. "Our job is to describe who we are."
In laying out a political strategy to the party faithful here, Rove explained that by stressing the war on terrorism during the 2002 campaigns, GOP candidates also will be able to capitalize on what he said is the Republican advantage on homeland security issues. "The second place we should go to the country is on protecting the homeland," Rove told the enthusiastic audience. "We can go to the country confidently on this issue because Americans trust the Republican Party to do a better job of keeping our communities and families safe."
In his luncheon speech, Rove contended that Bush's bipartisan strategy on such issues as education reform has, in fact, proved to be a partisan bonanza for the GOP. "I'm glad the Democrats worked with us [on education], but, you know what, the Republicans will get the credit," Rove said. He cited Gallup polls showing that the GOP had "succeeded in wiping out a 51-year disadvantage on this issue."
The party voted unanimously to make former Montana governor Marc F. Racicot its new chairman, replacing former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III, who was nudged out of that position by the White House after serving one year of a two-year term.
Racicot vowed to continue efforts to attract minorities to the party. The RNC announced initiatives to attract Hispanic voters, including voter registration drives for newly naturalized citizens and Spanish lessons for party leaders in key states. "There is no greater priority than for us to expand the party," Racicot said.
He praised Bush for his success in ending "the politics of personal destruction."
"And thank goodness he did. Working with our Democratic friends, we are finally achieving the bipartisan results Americans have been demanding," Racicot said.
Still, Racicot was not averse to going after Democrats, at least on the economy, which he said would be a major campaign issue. He called on Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) to "stop stalling" and allow a vote on Bush's economic stimulus plan.
RNC Co-Chairwoman Ann Wagner continued that theme when she took the podium. Denouncing what she described as "Daschlenomics," Wagner said the economic strategies proposed by Democrats reflect the "kind of liberal thinking more attuned to Havana, Cuba, than to Cuba, Missouri." She charged that Daschle sabotaged efforts to pass an economic stimulus bill in order to improve Democratic chances in the November elections. "He deliberately turned away from a workable bipartisan economic stimulus plan; he knows that a thriving economy will be bad for Democrats," she said.
Racicot, a partner in the Texas law firm Bracewell & Patterson, lobbied for Enron Corp. last year. He will continue to draw a salary from the law firm but has said he will end all lobbying work.
After being elected chairman, Racicot defended his decision to remain on the payroll of a law firm with many lobbying clients, telling reporters he decided to stay to honor a two-year contract. Asked whether he will leave once the contract expires, he said, "We'll have to see what happens 11 months from now." Racicot stressed that he will not lobby. "I'm going to do nothing that in any way would even suggest something adverse to his [Bush's] best interests," he said.
Meanwhile, Democrats, meeting in Washington, today began the process of altering the 2004 presidential primary calendar to give more states the authority to hold early contests. However, they rebuffed a bid to deny Iowa and New Hampshire their traditional first spots.