The Terrorism Card
With Election Day looming, the president tries to put the focus on one big issue
What a difference two months can make. In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt two major blows to President Bush's strategy in the war on terrorism, ruling that the military tribunals his administration established to try al Qaeda suspects was unconstitutional and that the Geneva Conventions' standards for prisoner treatment applied to suspected terrorists in U.S. military custody, a view at odds with the White House. Last week, in announcing that his administration would reverse course and meet those demands, the president-to the surprise of almost everyone in Washington-appeared to score a political victory, at least for the moment.
Bush's call for Congress to pass legislation authorizing a revised version of his military tribunals succeeded not only in co-opting the last congressional session before the midterm elections; it came in a speech in which the president disclosed that CIA interrogations in secret prisons abroad had foiled a series of deadly terrorist plots. The revelations raised the specter of more attacks just two months before the midterm elections, playing to one of the only political advantages Republicans have left. On the same day, the Defense Department announced that all detainees in U.S. military custody would now be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, depriving Bush critics of a main attack line. "The White House just gave all Republican congressmen exactly what they need," says GOP strategist Scott Reed. "Every time you see mug shots of those [terrorists], it reminds people that Republicans are on the offensive, and that Democrats don't have a plan."
GOP control. It also reminds the country that, as it marks the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks this week, another anniversary looms: the third national election in which the GOP hopes to maintain control of Washington by arguing that it will provide Americans with more security than the Democrats. "Terrorism is not at the top of people's minds day in and day out," says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll. "Republicans are trying to drive it to the fore of public consciousness." The campaign includes Bush's request late last week for congressional authorization of the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program, and even the launch of a new anti-Democrat online newspaper called America Weakly, paid for by the Republican National Committee. With the president's approval rating under 40 percent and a majority of Americans continuing to view the Iraq war as a mistake, the Republicans have little choice but to turn their focus to terrorism, where 42 percent of Americans think the GOP is stronger, compared with 34 percent for Democrats.
But Democrats say the Republican national security campaign, which Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid summed up as "fear, fear, fear, and more fear," won't yield the benefits it did in 2002 and 2004. Even as Democrats pledged cooperation on tribunals legislation, they upped the ante and claimed that they are in fact stronger than their opponents on security issues, framing the Iraq war as a distraction from the war on terrorism. Last week, party leaders distributed a report alleging that Bush has made the country weaker and called for implementing more 9/11 commission recommendations. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg says last week's White House offensive was another instance where "they get a few points bump up, and then the reality of Iraq ... sets back in, and their numbers go back or even worsen."