It's a post-'pre-9'11' world

Karl Rove, the so-called architect of George W. Bush’s two terms in the White House, has signaled recently that his blueprint for maintaining control of the Congress is more of the same: Mobilize the base and scare moderates with the charge that Democrats are soft on terrorism. He predicted that Republicans could portray their opponents as living with a “pre-9/11 mind set.”

President Bush’s naming of Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden to head the CIA is, in part, designed to get the party focused on that message.

Clearly, the White House would like nothing better than to revive the debate over the National Security Agency (NSA) eavesdropping program, which Hayden has run and defended vigorously. Republican strategists are counting on Democrats to rise to the bait and use the Hayden confirmation hearings as a platform to rail against “domestic spying.” The theory is that it would once again give GOP candidates a tough-on-terrorists platform and an opportunity to paint Democrats as being weak on national security.

Well, the game has changed since the last election, and it may be a flawed political calculation to run this same old play.

Some of the most vocal opposition to Hayden’s nomination has come from powerful Republicans. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has always been troubled by the potential abuses of domestic spying and said he may want to use the nomination to reopen the debate on his terms. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Sen. Saxby ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissLobbying World Former GOP senator: Let Dems engage on healthcare bill OPINION: Left-wing politics will be the demise of the Democratic Party MORE (R-Ga.) and Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) were among the first to question Hayden’s nomination — the latter group not because of the domestic spying issue but because they fear putting a general in charge of the CIA will undermine the independence of the agency.

That is the message the Democrats will seize upon if they want to turn the Bush-Rove strategy against the Republicans — not that most American voters will follow the nuances of the debate enough to sort out the wisdom of a general running the CIA, rather that it could continue to nationalize the midterm elections.

While attempting to exploit the traditional Republican advantage on national security, the White House may well have outthought itself with this move. A number of recent polls show the public evenly split on the NSA monitoring program. Many are worried about potential abuses to their privacy in this digital, wireless age. While they want to do everything possible to prevent another terrorist attack here in the homeland, they are also leery of a government that has demonstrated it is willing to stretch the rules to accomplish its policy goals and thwart those who oppose them.

The Pentagon, NSA and White House are seen as the source of phantom weapons of mass destruction and leaks calculated to undermine those who questioned their policies. The military intelligence apparatus has consistently overestimated the dangers posed by Iraq and underestimated the difficulty of securing a stable government there.

It was the civilian-controlled CIA that raised the only objections to much of this faulty intelligence, though it certainly didn’t have it all right either. But independent analysis focused on long-term strategy rather than short-term tactics has always been the CIA portfolio. Democrats would be wise to remind voters that a little independent advice could help us avoid adventures like this war that huge majorities think has been badly bungled.

There is plenty of cover for such an argument. When Rep. Hoekstra, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, calls Hayden the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, Democrats can make their case without fear of being branded weak on terrorism. In fact, the argument could be made that tightening the circle of information under the control of the true believers who got us in this mess is the real danger to national security.

Rather than railing against the spy program, the Democratic leadership should muzzle Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and make the case that any general is just too close to the Pentagon to ensure an independent voice is being heard.

The message should be that this appointment is just another insular move by a president with approval ratings in the low 30s and a string of bad decisions. That will get the attention of Republicans who are looking to distance themselves a bit from this White House and give Democrats some room to build the case that they know how to protect us from terrorism.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.