Two years after President Bush won reelection having painted his opponent as soft on terrorists and weak on national security, Democrats have seized on the latest alleged terrorism plot in hopes of turning the political tables on the White House.
Their aggressive stance was evident hours after British authorities announced they had disrupted a plot to blow up airplanes: Leading Democrats blamed the terrorism threat on “mismanagement” by the Bush administration and charged that the Iraq war had become a “rallying cry” for the enemy.
On Friday, Democrats continued with a series of sharp statements accusing the White House of exploiting the case for political gain.
Party strategists said they had steered clear of such loaded language in similarly sensitive cases out of fear of stirring up voters on an issue that, since 2001, has largely helped Republicans. But Democrats said they were determined now to maintain their criticism through the November elections, citing public anxiety over the Iraq war and other foreign policy challenges that might, for the first time in three election cycles, lessen the GOP advantage.
The new strategy, spearheaded largely by the Senate Democratic leadership, is a direct response to surveys showing that Republicans hold only a marginal lead over Democrats when voters are asked whom they trust to keep the country safer.
But Republicans believe episodes like the alleged British terrorism plot play to their favor.
“If the Republican Party thinks that this is going to be a good political issue for them, they’re mistaken,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the committee that sets Democratic strategy for Senate campaigns. “We are going to answer them immediately.”
Schumer’s committee issued a blistering memo Friday that, among other things, said Vice President Dick Cheney knew of the alleged terrorism plot when he conducted a rare conference call with reporters Wednesday in which he suggested that “Al Qaeda types” would be emboldened by this week’s Connecticut Democratic primary victory by political newcomer Ned Lamont, an opponent of the Iraq war seeking a Senate seat.
The White House said Friday that Cheney was aware of a plot when he made his call but did not know the timing of the impending British arrests.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called it “disgraceful” that Cheney used such rhetoric while knowing what was about to transpire in Britain.
“There are simply no boundaries for these people,” Reid said in an e-mail to supporters and activists.
“In their minds, our national security and their continued hold on power are one and the same. And they will stop at nothing to keep it that way.”
Reid’s note went on to say he’d had it with the Republicans’ “cruel joke” on the politics of terrorism.
“During the 2002 and 2004 elections, Republicans tried to sow fear in the American public by claiming that they were the only ones who could keep America safe,” Reid wrote. “This from the same crowd that has driven Iraq to the brink of disaster, left Osama bin Laden on the loose to attack again, and continues to ignore our security needs at home. Ask any foreign policy pro, and they’ll tell you we’re less safe now than we were five years ago -- and that the Bush crowd is largely responsible.”
And Schumer criticized a Republican National Committee fundraising appeal from former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani that, coming the same day that the alleged plot dominated the news, declared: “In the middle of a war on terror, we need to remain focused on furthering Republican ideas more than ever before.”
The GOP committee called the e-mail a mistake and halted it before it was sent to all recipients.
Democratic strategists said Friday that their party’s reaction to the British case reflected a doctrine that had been taking hold over the last few months, starting with some Senate and House races in battleground states.
One example came in Ohio. When Republican Sen. Mike DeWine, following the GOP script, accused his challenger, U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), of being soft on crime, Brown struck back almost immediately with piercing rhetoric. A television ad by the state Democratic Party accused DeWine of “failing us” as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee when it came to claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
“That’s not protecting Ohio,” an announcer said.
In some ways, the aggressive response this week reflected Democrats’ concern that Lamont’s win in Connecticut over Sen. Joe Lieberman, an Iraq war supporter, was giving the White House an easy way to paint Democrats as weak on national defense. That comes as Democrats have been unable to craft a unified message on Iraq, with some calling for a fast drawdown of troops and others taking a more cautious approach.
But Democrats said the strategy also marked an acknowledgment that they might have been too passive in the 2002 and 2004 election campaigns, handing the high ground on security to Bush and the Republicans.
When a tape of Bin Laden was released days before the 2004 presidential election, advisors to Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee, were divided over how to handle it. Some said Kerry should emphasize how the tape reflected the failure by Bush to capture the Al Qaeda leader, whereas others feared that only Bush would benefit from a reminder that the country was unsafe.
One former Kerry advisor, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly, said there had been an ongoing battle over “how much to engage on Iraq and foreign affairs.”
“The dominant viewpoint was that whatever level there was on foreign affairs, we were better off if the focus was on domestic issues,” the former advisor said.
Another former Kerry campaign aide, now a Senate Democratic strategist, said that in past years there was a “certain amount of reticence or concern about politicizing these issues.”
If Democrats succeed in eliminating the GOP’s edge on national security issues, it would mark a major turnabout in the conventional wisdom of modern politics -- so much so that Republican strategists believe the Democrats are miscalculating.
One senior administration official told reporters on Air Force One this week that the White House would be happy to have this year’s elections decided on national security and the Iraq war -- particularly if the GOP could use antiwar Democrats to portray Democrats as supporting a “defeatist” mentality.
Asked about the appropriateness of focusing on the war during a political campaign, the administration official said: “Are you saying if the Democrats talk about the war, we shouldn’t? ... We’ll talk about the war, and we will talk about the consequences of the policies advocated by the Democrats.”
White House officials, speaking Friday as Bush’s working vacation in Texas neared its end, predicted that debates in Congress over terrorism-related issues such as domestic wiretapping would play to the GOP’s advantage. And Bush will continue to use the bully pulpit to discuss terrorism, with a national security meeting planned for next week in Washington.