Home | Opinion | Columnists | Mark Mellman

A security election take three

It was eerily familiar. Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman announce their intention to focus the election around security. Ignoring the fact that he cut before he had the chance to run, Vice President Cheney sputters contemptuous insults, accusing Democrats of being soft on terror. Then a real incident transpires creating legitimate fear for the GOP to exploit. Not an Osama tape this time, nor, thank G-d, a massacre like Beslan. 

It was eerily familiar. Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman announce their intention to focus the election around security. Ignoring the fact that he cut before he had the chance to run, Vice President Cheney sputters contemptuous insults, accusing Democrats of being soft on terror. Then a real incident transpires creating legitimate fear for the GOP to exploit. Not an Osama tape this time, nor, thank G-d, a massacre like Beslan. 

Cynically, they focus on the very real threat, not to confront it more strongly, but to manipulate the political agenda. For 50 years, Republicans have had the advantage on defense and national security. To the extent the country’s consciousness is fixed on those issues, the GOP benefits. It was a successful strategy in 2002 and 2004. Why not give it another spin in 2006?

The London arrests certainly raised the salience of terrorism. In less than a month, the number citing terrorism as the nation’s most important problem more than doubled. 

However, the third time for this strategy is not likely to be as charmed as the first two. Executing the same strategy in a radically transformed environment will not produce the same result.

Perhaps most important, the once yawning Republican advantage on terrorism has been diminished dramatically. What was a vast 29-point lead for the GOP as the party better able to deal with terrorism has shrunk dramatically, to a mere 5-8 points. Republicans no longer own their signature issue.

Most Americans now see Bush’s security policy through the prism of Iraq, which has been judged a failure. Just 30 percent approve of the president’s handling of Iraq—a 31-point net shift against Bush since the election. Only four in ten believe we did the right thing by invading Iraq— a 13-point net shift against the president’s view since 2004.

Instead of seeing Iraq as part of the war on terror, Americans now understand Bush’s failure in Iraq has made us less safe. Only 35 percent see Iraq as a major part of the war on terror, while a mere 9 percent accept Bush’s argument that fighting “them,” there has reduced the threat of terrorism. Nearly half believe the war has actually increased the threat of terrorism against the U.S.

Americans’ confidence in George Bush’s ability to protect this country ebbed as blood flowed onto the sands of Iraq and as New Orleans flooded. After the British foiled the Heathrow plot, by a 20-point margin, Americans said their government had not done all it should have to improve airport security. That represents a dramatic change since 2005 when a majority did believe the U.S. had taken every reasonable precaution. The number with a “great deal of confidence” in the government’s ability to protect the nation from terrorism fell by half, while those with little or no confidence tripled.

Going into the 2004 election a plurality of Americans thought the U.S. was winning the war on terror. Today most people do not. President Bush was wrong when he implied that bin Laden living in a cave did not constitute a threat. Whether from a cave or from a palace, he hatched a plot that almost killed thousands. Bush’s failure to eliminate Osama was capped by the president actually closing down the CIA section tasked with finding him, just weeks before the latest plot was uncovered.

An election focused on security helps Republicans only when the public trusts them, and not Democrats, to deal with the issue. Those circumstances obtained in 2002 and 2004, but 2006 is different. Republicans have squandered their security advantage in the sands of Iraq, the mountains of Tora Bora and in the flood plain of New Orleans.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.