Dems’ terror trials

The election of Scott Brown (R-Mass.) to fill the seat of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) was a harbinger for Democrats in this fall’s congressional elections, but not for the reasons everyone thinks.

Yes, healthcare reform, bailouts and the growth of government are all liabilities for the party in power. But the Brown victory showed that the potency of terror policy, an issue pushed to the back burner in the historic 2008 presidential campaign, cannot be ignored.

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Aides said that though Brown had run aggressively against healthcare reform, it was his argument — in the wake of the Christmas Day attack — that suspected terrorists don’t deserve constitutional rights that had put him over the finish line, according to internal campaign polls.

The White House is now seeking vindication from criticism that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was read his Miranda rights within 50 minutes of capture instead of being held as an enemy combatant. It turns out Abdulmutallab has been talking, providing useful information. The president’s team is taking comfort in the revelation that Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber,” was Mirandized by the George W. Bush administration within minutes of being taken into custody in December of 2001.

The “Bush did it too” argument, which often works for President Obama, probably won’t move public opinion on this question. It turns out Americans feel the same way Massachusetts does. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found an overwhelming majority opposed giving terror suspects the same legal rights as Americans tried in the U.S. court system, by a margin of 67-28. In that same poll the approval/disapproval margin for Obama’s record on terrorism was 45/44 percent.

The administration is pushing back hard against bipartisan rejection of this policy, even as other significant national-security decisions are suddenly being reconsidered. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday that the administration, having missed the Jan. 22, 2010 deadline for closing Guantánamo Bay, is rethinking its plan to transfer detainees to a facility in Thomson, Ill. And though the Justice Department remains mum, top Democrats say the administration has scratched plans to hold the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Manhattan.

Congress must approve the funding for the transfer of detainees to the Illinois prison, as well as for terror trials, and it appears the president’s party isn’t likely to have the stomach for it. This week Democratic Sens. Jim Webb of Virginia and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas signed on to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) bill cutting off funding for civilian trials for terror suspects in the United States. Webb is from a state Obama won but Democrats lost in Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s November landslide. Lincoln is from a state Obama lost by 20 points, and she is in the fight of her political life. On the issue of terror trials, Lincoln and Webb are likely to be in the company of other Democrats soon enough.

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This week Obama’s national security team told the Senate Intelligence Committee that they expect, with certainty, an attempted terrorist attack on the homeland within three to six months. Meanwhile, the administration is having trouble defending its record: failing to stop Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan from murdering 13 service members at Fort Hood despite the government’s awareness of his contacts with radicals overseas, failing to stop Abdulmutallab from boarding the Northwest Airlines plane despite his father’s warnings, planning and failing to close Guantánamo Bay, and planning and failing to hold the costly KSM trial (which critics have painted as a show trial) in New York City.

In a tough election year, President Obama can’t expect Democrats to join the fight.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.