The skirmishes over "who can keep us safe" have escalated into full-scale political warfare.
Republicans are attacking President Obama for being weak on national security in the wake of the attempted bombing on Christmas Day of a Northwest Airlines jetliner en route to Detroit. And the Democrats are fighting back with a vengeance.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney is leading the charge for the GOP. "We are at war, and when President Obama pretends we aren't, it makes us less safe," Cheney told Politico this week. "Why doesn't he want to admit we're at war? It doesn't fit with the view of the world he brought with him to the Oval Office. It doesn't fit with what seems to be the goal of his presidency—social transformation, the restructuring of American society." The former vice president to George W. Bush added: "He seems to think if he has a low-key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people, we won't be at war."
Cheney is the most prominent Republican to zero in on Obama but hardly the only one. For example, Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a fundraising letter this week: "They just don't get it. These are the same weak-kneed liberals who have recently tried to bring Guantánamo Bay terrorists right here to Michigan."
House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio also broadened the attack yesterday by arguing that the Detroit fiasco shows that Obama should reverse his decision to close the prison for suspected terrorists at Guantánamo. "It's time for the president to halt terrorist transfers to other countries, including Yemen," Boehner said. The Republicans, however, generally don't mention that some detainees who are now plotting and fighting for al Qaeda in Yemen were released by the Bush administration two years ago.
Some Republicans say Obama should have responded before Monday to the Detroit episode, implying that he was more interested in continuing his Hawaiian vacation without interruption. But Democrats point out that they didn't attack President George W. Bush when he waited a week while on vacation at his Texas ranch before commenting on the attempt of "shoe bomber" Richard Reid to blow up a jetliner in 2001. In any case, White House officials say Obama has been focused intently on the latest incident but has kept his involvement mostly behind the scenes.
The Democratic response has been sharp and aggressive. "This president is not interested in bellicose rhetoric," said White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer in a blog posted yesterday on the White House website. "He is focused on action. Seven years of bellicose rhetoric failed to reduce the threat from al Qaeda and succeeded in dividing this country. And it seems strangely off-key now, at a time when our country is under attack, for the architect of those policies to be attacking the president."
Pfeiffer added: "It is telling that Vice President Cheney and others seem to be more focused on criticizing the administration than condemning the attackers. Unfortunately, too many are engaged in the typical Washington game of pointing fingers and making political hay, instead of working together to find solutions to make our country safer."
And Hari Sevugan, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee, issued a statement this morning that said, "Republicans have gone beyond crass political opportunism—using a potential terrorist attack as an opportunity to play partisan games and raise campaign cash. It's unbelievable—and the American people are not going to tolerate it. Let's be clear—we will not be lectured to by Republicans who are more interested in scoring cheap political points and cashing in on an attempted terrorist attack than in protecting America."
White House strategists are well aware that the GOP has billed the Democrats as weak on national security for many years, and the issue remains a vulnerability. The 2004 presidential campaign was waged in large part on that theme, as the Republicans said Democratic candidate John Kerry wasn't strong or tough enough to protect the country from terrorist threats. The attacks helped George W. Bush win a second term.