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Searching for the Democrats -- The National Security Rap

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It's become axiomatic that the Democrats don't have their act together. Despite a series of Republican screw-ups voters are unimpressed with the Democratic alternative. This is the third of six articles exploring why Dems are having a tough time taking advantage of Bush Administration ineptitude. This focuses on the issue of national security, the rap that Democrats can't protect us.

While national politics is frequently bewildering, the last eighteen months has seen a truly paradoxical trend: increasing numbers of voters believe that President Bush is mismanaging the occupation of Iraq. Nonetheless, they remain convinced that he is doing a good job on national security. The February 10th Gallup Poll finds that only 38 percent approve of the way Bush is handling "the situation in Iraq," while 54 percent approve of his stance on "terrorism," the only parameter where his approval rating is over 50 percent.

Whenever things start to go badly for Republicans, the Bush Administration pulls out their wild card""the fear of terrorism""that trumps whatever the Democrats have going for them at the moment. It's important to consider this phenomena, because it tells us a lot about what the Republicans are doing right and the Democrats are doing wrong. And, it's more than a political consideration, as it affects our national security. The truth is that the Bush White House has done a dreadful job defending America""if they had intentionally set out to foment Jihad and weaken our defenses, they could not have done a better job rendering the US vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

How do Republicans manage to turn their massive screw ups into perceived accomplishments? The answer has three parts: First, the Bush Administration takes full advantage of Presidential press power. Second, the GOP massages the divisions within the Democratic Party, uses them to feed the perception that Democrats are weak on national security. Finally, media focus on Iraq swamps news about homeland security.

The White House always has an advantage commanding media attention. Under the direction of Karl Rove, this has been maximized. Day after day, the GOP speaks with one voice. They have a well-oiled message machine that is plugged into the vast network of conservative media outlets. Furthermore, since Republicans took control of the Senate, in 2002, there has been no consistently effective Democratic media presence on Capitol Hill. The minority Party has no subpoena power and, therefore, is unable to call hearings on subjects such as the manipulation of intelligence data in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. On most issues, the public hears only the Bush perspective.

Over the past five years, the Republican message machine has consistently painted Dems as weak on national security. The Administration has used their considerable leverage to both define the Republican position on terrorism, "hunt down the bad guys," and a faux Democratic position, "attempt to subpoena them through the International Criminal Court." On issues like Iraq, Karl Rove and other Republican operatives have highlighted natural divisions within Democratic Ranks""add more troops versus withdraw all troops""and painted the Dems as equivocators, as the Party of "flip floppers." Democrats haven't effectively dealt with this. Until Congressman John Murtha came along, the Democrats didn't have a natural spokesperson for their national security position.

Finally, there is the reality that news on Iraq overwhelms that of national security, per se. In the past year, there have been two revelations about Homeland Security that should have convinced every voter that the Bush Administration is totally incompetent: first there was the report of the 9//11 commission, and their follow up, which indicated that the White House wasn't taking the actions necessarily to fix the mistakes made before and after 9/11. Then there was Hurricane Katrina, which indicated that FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, in general, was unprepared for a natural or man-made disaster. In each case, the news had no sticking power. Democrats proposed a real plan for national security, but the public remains unaware of it.

Besides the Administration's media manipulation system, there are two other factors to consider. One is that day-after-day Iraq horrors swamp all other national security news. The other factor is the public has been hypnotized by President's repetitive argument that it is better to fight terrorists in Iraq than it is to fight them here. The average American appears to have bought his argument that the war in Iraq should be our central focus in the war on terror, if for no other reason that Bush is consistent. Voters confuse obdurate inflexibility with principle.

Of course, the President isn't telling people the truth. But Americans are scared and don't see this. And the Democrats aren't helping their case by ignoring White House deceit.

The crucial Democratic problem is that the public believes Dems are weak on national security and on moral values. For this reason, many voters don't trust what Dems say about national security, they don't believe their reports that Emperor Bush wears no clothes. Americans cling to the belief that Bush is acting on principle, because they don't understand the Democrats' values.

More about this dilemma in my next column.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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