The debate over the Department of Homeland Security will long stand as one of the sorriest episodes in the history of partisanship.
The idea for this vast new bureaucracy was embraced at a moment of maximum political advantage and pursued with a relentless focus on electoral calculation. By turning domestic security into a divisive and partisan issue, President Bush helped win his party an election. But at what cost?
Recall that the president resisted creating this department for months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Calls for the new security structure came largely from Democrats, especially Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.).
On June 6, Bush abruptly announced on national television that he had switched sides and embraced the Homeland Security Department. What was going on at that moment? For weeks, the news had been dominated by stories reporting the failures of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement in the days and weeks leading up to the terrorist attacks. Suddenly, Congress was asking the obvious question: How could this have happened?
It was not exactly a line of inquiry the administration welcomed, and Bush's speech just happened to come on the first day of testimony from whistle-blower Coleen Rowley, the chief legal counsel of the FBI's Minneapolis field office. Surprise: Bush overshadowed Rowley.
Dan Balz noted in The Post on June 7 that Bush appeared on television as he was "struggling to regain the initiative" on security.
While the president retained the confidence of the country, Balz wrote, "his administration is no longer immune from questions or criticism about what happened before Sept. 11, and whether everything is now being done to make the homeland safer."
"In recent weeks," Balz continued, "Bush has faced the first sustained scrutiny since the terrorist attacks." The result: "signs of declining public confidence in the government's ability to combat future terrorism."
Given this opening, did the Democrats respond to Bush's speech with partisanship? No. As they did so often after Sept. 11, they turned the other cheek. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, regularly vilified by the Republicans as a mad partisan, called Bush's remarks "encouraging." Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), one of the Democrats' leading voices on security, called Bush's proposal "bold and courageous."
The natural move from here would have been authentic bipartisanship to get a bill passed. After all, the differences between Bush and the Democrats were so small that Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) noted that 95 percent of the homeland security bill finally approved this week had been written by Democrats.
But getting a department created before the election was clearly less important to the president than having a campaign issue. He picked a fight over union and civil service protections and Republican senators filibustered various efforts to reach a compromise on the issue. In late September, Bush went so far as to charge that the Senate -- meaning its Democratic majority -- was "not interested in the security of the American people."
And just to make sure that the bitterness of the election was sustained, House Republicans larded the final bill with a list of special interest provisions, including one protecting the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly from lawsuits relating to a mercury-based vaccine additive that plaintiffs claim caused their children's autism. The shamelessness is breathtaking. The Democrats' worries over employee rights were characterized as a concern for "special interests." But the big contributions that the big drug companies make presumably give them immunity from the special interest change.
At least two prominent Democrats, Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.) and Rep. David Obey (Wis.), remain mystified as to why their party was not able to make more out of the homeland security issue.
Obey, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, has been arguing for months that the administration is providing far less money than is needed for a long list of security priorities. "It's almost like they've made a conscious decision that you can't defend against all contingencies, so let's just cover the basic ones, and save every dollar we can for tax cuts," Obey said.
Graham, the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, sees the administration as "lethargic" in dismantling terrorist networks inside the United States and said the country should be debating how much more needs to be done.
But Obey and Graham went largely unheard. And because the real homeland security debate never happened, you can see Bush's maneuverings as brilliant politics. But it is brilliance bought at a high price. The next time the president's defenders try to evade tough questions about his policies by declaring that homeland security should be above partisan politics, his critics should just chuckle knowingly and reply: We won't be fooled again.