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Can you believe that they believe that?

SINCE ALMOST immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, Republicans have been saying that the Democratic approach to fighting Islamic radicalism is to curl up in a little ball and hope the bad men go away. President Bush constantly asserts things such as: “Some say, ‘Well, this is just a matter of law enforcement and intelligence,’ ” or “The natural tendency for people is to say, ‘Oh, let’s lay down our arms.’ But you can’t negotiate with these people.... Therapy won’t work.”

This is a wild and vicious caricature, and I assumed it was a cynical right-wing ploy to mislead the public. But recently a horrifying realization has sunk in: They -- Republicans, conservatives -- really believe this tripe.

The seeds of this realization were sown a few years ago, when I appeared on a right-wing radio talk show. At one point I mentioned to the host that Bush had neglected -- or, in some cases, actively suppressed efforts to bolster -- homeland security. I had written a lengthy cover story in the New Republic making this point, and not a few Democrats had been harping on the same point. This was the first the show’s host had heard of such an argument.

She was totally incredulous: Bush? Weak on terrorism? You must have the wrong guy! She truly believed that the only Democratic criticism of Bush’s approach to fighting terrorism was that he had gone too far.

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You’d think things would have changed since then, but you’d be wrong. In a recent Op-Ed article, Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute characterized the liberal response to 9/11 thus: “Liberals said we should continue to treat terrorism as a law enforcement issue. Others would have attacked Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and left it at that.”

It’s not just die-hard GOP partisans who think the Democratic alternative is to do nothing. Disillusioned conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan recently lacerated Bush’s foreign policy but concluded: “If the Democrats could present a multifaceted, hard-nosed approach to winning the war, a lot of us in the middle would give them a second look.” It fell to his liberal fellow blogger Kevin Drum to point out that nearly every element of the alternative Sullivan called for -- nonviolent democracy promotion, energy conservation, beefed-up homeland security and so on -- was contained in a plan recently drafted by congressional Democrats.

And, indeed, the 2004 Democratic platform was filled with specific plans for a stronger reply to Islamic radicalism: Add 40,000 soldiers, double the Special Forces, inspect more cargo, track down loose nuclear material, and on and on.

So how am I so sure conservatives really believe that the Democratic plan is to go soft on terrorism? For one thing, genuine cluelessness has a different whiff than lying. There have been too many instances of conservatives caught unaware of the actual Democratic plans to think they’re all willfully suppressing the knowledge.

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And the Democrats simply haven’t had the platform to disseminate their ideas. They lack control of any branch of government in Washington, so the media ignore their proposals, which have no chance of passing. And they don’t have the network of partisan gabbers and propagandists to disseminate their views that conservatives built up when they were out of power. So it’s easy for lazy pundits to conclude Democrats simply have no ideas. As “Seinfeld’s” George Costanza famously put it: It’s not a lie if you believe it.

Yet this belief has had catastrophic consequences. Because conservatives genuinely bought into Bush’s view that the only choice was to follow him or coddle the terrorists, they chose to follow him. Thus they have been unwilling to openly question the numerous Bush foreign policy fiascos -- from refusing to use U.S. troops to capture Osama bin Laden and his henchmen to failing to plan for the Iraq occupation. If they had raised some questions a couple of years ago, maybe our Middle East policy wouldn’t be a shambles. And maybe, come to think of it, their party wouldn’t be utterly discredited in the eyes of the public.


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