President Bush says Democrats want to “wave the white flag of surrender” in Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney accuses the opposition party’s leaders of “defeatism” in the global war on terrorism. And House Republican leader John A. Boehner of Ohio charges Democrats who applauded last week’s Supreme Court ruling on detainees with advocating “special privileges for terrorists.”
Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks, Republicans have made an uncompromising stance against terrorism a cornerstone of their campaigns. It helped the GOP to take control of the Senate in 2002 and Bush to win reelection in 2004.
Now, in the face of increasing violence in Iraq and eroding public support for the war at home, Republicans are turning again to the theme of toughness -- with gloves off.
The environment is not entirely hospitable. A car bomb killed scores of people in a busy Baghdad market Saturday, a day after the Army announced that American soldiers were accused of raping an Iraqi woman and then killing her and three family members. Polls find most voters say they want to see Democrats take control of Congress this fall.
But Republicans believe toughness still sells.
“Foreign policy looked like a minus for Republicans this year,” GOP pollster Frank Luntz said, “but it’s turning into a plus.... The public doesn’t endorse the Republican policy, but they actually reject the Democratic alternative.... By comparison, the Republicans do well.”
Republican strategists hailed last week’s Supreme Court ruling on detainees at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba, which held that Bush had overstepped his powers by refusing some legal protections for alleged terrorists.
“The Supreme Court ruling on Guantanamo was a real blessing in disguise,” said Whit Ayres, another GOP pollster. It “allows us to have a debate on whether terrorists should receive the same legal protections as American military personnel.... It’s hard to see Republicans losing when that’s the debate.”
Democratic leaders say, at least in public, that they are confident they can win that debate.
But the Democrats’ response so far has been less unified, less pointed and less memorable than the Republicans’ attacks.
“The Democratic leadership has not been very good at this,” said George P. Lakoff, a linguistics professor at UC Berkeley who has advised some Democrats on ways to sharpen their message. “They’re still debating whether you should say as little as possible and hope the Republicans fail, or stand up for what you believe.”
Last week’s Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that 54% of voters said they wanted to see Democrats capture control of Congress this fall, whereas 34% favored Republican control. Voters said they thought Democrats would do a better job than Republicans on issues including the economy, immigration and Iraq. The one exception was national security and terrorism: 39% of registered voters said Republicans would do a better job; 30% favored Democrats.
The poll also found that Bush’s approval rating on his handling of the war on terrorism had improved markedly since April -- a swing at least partly attributable to signs of progress in Iraq, including the death of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The Republicans’ new offensive on national security was launched last month by the White House, which encouraged Republican leaders in Congress to press for a debate on Iraq.
As the debate approached, Bush embarked on a surprise, made-for-TV mission to Baghdad. On the same day, the president’s top strategist, Karl Rove, accused Democrats of wanting to “cut and run” from Iraq.
In a June speech to New Hampshire Republicans, Rove charged that Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who have proposed a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, were “ready to give the green light to go to war, but when it gets tough, and when it gets difficult, they fall back on that party’s old pattern of cutting and running,” according to the Union Leader newspaper.
The next day, Bush signaled that Republicans would paint the Democrats as pushing a plan that would “embolden” terrorists.
“What’s going to matter [in the 2006 elections] is who has got the plan that will enable us to succeed in Iraq,” he said.
At a fundraising event last week for Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), Bush said: “There’s a group in the opposition party who are willing to retreat before the mission is done. They’re willing to wave the white flag of surrender. And if they succeed, the United States will be worse off, and the world will be worse off.”
And after Thursday’s Supreme Court decision on Guantanamo, House Majority Leader Boehner went a step further, accusing his Democratic counterparts of giving Al Qaeda “a show of support” by praising the court ruling.
A statement released by Boehner’s office was headlined, “Capitol Hill Democrats Advocate Special Privileges for Terrorists.” It noted that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) had applauded the court’s ruling that alleged terrorists were entitled to “the basic guarantees of our justice system.” The statement also said that Al Qaeda was “surely pleased at the show of support from Capitol Hill Democrats.”
Some Republican strategists think Boehner may have gone too far.
“That’s too extreme,” Luntz said. “What you don’t want to do in this debate [is] go over the top.”
A spokesman for Boehner, Kevin Smith, said that the majority leader stood by his statement and that it fit into the GOP’s campaign plan.
“Nancy Pelosi’s statement was weak and sympathetic to the rights of terrorists,” Smith said.
Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly replied: “Republicans are resorting to their tired tactics of distort, distract and divide. Instead of actually doing something to protect our nation, such as implementing the 9/11 commission recommendations or hiring more border control agents, they are doing what that always do: trying to incite fear and attack Democrats. It won’t work.”
Pelosi said in her statement that the Supreme Court ruling provided “a reminder of our responsibility to protect both the American people and our constitutional rights. We cannot allow the values on which our country was founded to become a casualty in the war on terrorism.”
So far, issues of national security and terrorism haven’t turned up much in races for the House, where Democrats are hoping to erase the Republicans’ 15-seat majority.
“House races aren’t about national security,” said Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is coordinating GOP House campaigns.
“House races are about pocketbook issues.”
But national security is already a theme in several close Senate races, including the contest in Missouri, where Bush campaigned last week.
Talent, the Republican incumbent, faces a tough challenge from Democratic State Auditor Claire McCaskill. Talent has been a strong supporter of Bush’s policy in Iraq. McCaskill, a moderate, did not endorse either of two Democratic proposals on a withdrawal from Iraq that came before the Senate last month, leading Talent’s campaign to accuse her of being “wishy-washy.”
In Virginia, Republican Sen. George Allen -- who is exploring the possibility of running for president -- is facing furious attacks on his national security credentials from Democratic nominee James H. Webb Jr., a Vietnam veteran who served as secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration before leaving the Republican Party.
Allen has accused Kerry and other Democrats of being “weak in the knees.”
Webb said he did not endorse Kerry’s position.