December 19, 2005
Have The Democrats Walked Into a Trap......Again?

By John McIntyre

The political pendulum is swinging back towards President Bush. The President’s approval rating has a pattern of dipping when he takes his Crawford vacation every August then bouncing back in September upon his return to Washington. This year, however, beginning with Cindy Sheehan, followed by Katrina, Harriet Miers, the Fitzgerald investigation, and the negative drip-drip-drip of reporting out of Iraq, Bush’s job approval continued to drop into the beginning of November.

The last days in October laid the ground work for the President’s turn around. The Miers withdrawal and subsequent nomination of Samuel Alito staunched the bleeding from a large part of Bush’s base, and the sole indictment from Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald removed a major distraction for the White House. (At least that is the way the Fitzgerald inquiry looks today, barring any future, unexpected indictment(s).) With the foundation laid, the White House launched a political counter-attack on Veterans Day with a speech by President Bush directly criticizing his opponents for rewriting the history of how the war in Iraq began.

Not recognizing the political ground had shifted beneath their feet, Democrats continued to press forward with their offensive against the President. They’ve now foolishly climbed out on a limb that Rove and Bush have the real potential to chop off. One would think that after the political miscalculations the Democrats made during the 2002 and 2004 campaigns they would not make the same mistake a third time, but it is beginning to look a lot like Charlie Brown and the football again.

First, the Democrats still do not grasp that foreign affairs and national security issues are their vulnerabilities, not their strengths. All of the drumbeat about Iraq, spying, and torture that the left thinks is so damaging to the White House are actually positives for the President and Republicans. Apparently, Democrats still have not fully grasped that the public has profound and long-standing concerns about their ability to defend the nation. As long as national security related issues are front page news, the Democrats are operating at a structural political disadvantage. Perhaps the intensity of their left wing base and the overwhelmingly liberal press corps produces a disorientation among Democratic politicians and prevents a more realistic analysis of where the country’s true pulse lies on these issues.

With their publicly defeatist language, John Murtha, Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean reinforce these “soft on security” steroretypes, a weakness that more sober-minded Democrats have been trying to mitigate since the late 60’s and 70’s. Unfortunately, this mentality dominates the Democrats’ political base and more accurately represents where the heart and soul of the modern Democratic party lies than the very tiny sliver of Joe Lieberman Democrats. The Party of FDR, Truman and John Kennedy -- at least on foreign policy -- is clearly no more.

In 2002, Republicans very skillfully were able to paint the Democrats as obstructionists on the Homeland Security bill and used the issue to bash Democrats as soft on the War on Terror. In 2004, perceptions that when it came to defending the nation, the leadership and resolve of President Bush was superior to the Democrat Kerry was always the tailwind at Bush’s back that led him to victory.

And while 9/11 has certainly faded in the consciousness for most in Washington these days (and for many in the country as a whole), for average Joe American security is still a critically important issue. And the bottom line is that average Americans’ sympathies are not with terrorists trying to kill innocents, but rather with our troops and security agents who are trying to combat these jihadists.

The public resents the overkill from Abu Ghraib and the hand-wringing over whether captured terrorists down in Gitmo may have been mistreated. They want Kahlid Mohamed, one of the master minds of 9/11 and a top bin Laden lieutanent, to be water-boarded if our agents on the ground think that is what necessary to get the intel we need. They want the CIA to be aggressively rounding up potential terrorists worldwide and keeping them in “black sites” in Romania or Poland or wherever, because the public would rather have suspected terrorists locked away in secret prisons in Bulgaria than plotting to kill Americans in Florida or California or New York.

The public also has the wisdom to understand that when you are at war mistakes will be made. You can’t expect 100% perfection. So while individuals like Kahled Masri may have been mistakenly imprisoned, that is the cost of choosing to aggressively fight this enemy. Everyone understands that innocents were killed and imprisoned mistakenly in World War II. Had we prosecuted WWII with the same concern for the enemy’s “rights” the outcome very well might have been different.

One of the major problems working against Democrats is many on their side appear to be rooting for failure in Iraq and publicly ridicule the idea that we actually might win. When this impression is put in context of the debate over eavesdropping or the Patriot Act, Democrats run the significant risk of being perceived to be more concerned with the enemy’s rights than protecting ordinary Americans. This is a loser for Democrats.

If Democrats want to make this spying “outrage” a page one story they are fools walking right into a trap. Now that this story is out and the security damage is already done, let’s have a full investigation into exactly who the President spied on and why. Let’s also find out who leaked this highly classified information and prosecute them to the full extent of the law. If the president is found to have broken the law and spied on political opponents or average Americans who had nothing to do with terrorism, then Bush should be impeached and convicted.

But unlike Senator Levin, who claimed on Meet The Press yesterday not to know what the President’s motives were when he authorized these eavesdropping measures, I have no doubt that the President’s use of this extraordinary authority was solely an attempt to deter terrorist attacks on Americans and our allies. Let the facts and the truth come out, but the White House’s initial response is a pretty powerful signal that they aren’t afraid of where this is heading.

More grounded Democrats may be thinking twice about the change in the political dialogue these past three weeks. Harry Reid had to reiterate twice on FOX News Sunday that the he is “opposed to evil terrorists.” That is about as loud of a warning bell as you can get. The public may not like all or even the majority of what President Bush is doing, but they have no doubt about his stance toward the “evil-doers.”

With the resounding success of last week’s election, it will become harder for the press and the Democrats to frame Iraq as an unmitigated disaster. You could see the mainstream media walking back the negativity in their coverage of Iraq this past week and, while I have no doubt the negative reporting will return, at some point the facts start to win out – just as has happened with the economy. Ironically, one benefit to the Bush administration from the consistently negative reporting on Iraq is that expectations have now been set so low the odds are better than 50-50 that 2006 will be viewed by the public as having seen significant progress in Iraq.

The media may be writing stories about Bush “in a bubble” but they are two months late to that theme. Just like the spring and summer of 2004 when the conventional beltway wisdom said that Bush’s sub-50% job approval made him a political goner, there is a distinct sense this president is being misunderestimated again.

John McIntyre is the co-founder and President of RealClearPolitics.

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