Toughness test to defend Constitution

Republicans seemed gleeful this week that the congressional agenda was turning to national security in the form of debate about warrantless wiretapping by the Bush administration.

Think again.

While I’ve long argued, here and elsewhere, that credibility on national security is a prerequisite for Democrats’ success, Democrats have nothing to fear from these issues, and Republicans nothing to gain.

Republicans, and some Democrats, seem to believe we are living in a post-Sept. 11 world, which of course we are. But politically we are living in a post-Sept. 11, post-Iraq, post-Dubai Ports, post-Katrina era. In short, the once yawning GOP advantage on national security has been erased, while Republican abuses have made defending constitutional rights popular again.

In our polling, what was not long ago a 35-point Republican advantage on protecting the country from terrorism has dwindled to just four points, while by 56 percent to 41 percent voters give President Bush negative marks for handling what was once his signature issue.

Though Americans surely want to protect the country from terrorists, they also insist on protecting our constitutional rights and, seeing no conflict between the two, overwhelmingly oppose key elements of the Bush administration’s surveillance agenda. Americans oppose warrantless wiretaps, blanket warrants and amnesty for telecommunication companies that handed over customers’ private information to the government. As a result, members who stand in defense of constitutional rights have little to fear from their constituents.

A nationwide poll of 1,000 voters we just completed for the American Civil Liberties Union found 61 percent in favor of requiring the government to get a warrant from a court before wiretapping conversations U.S. citizens have with people in other countries, and just 35 percent supporting warrantless wiretaps.

Support for this constitutional right is both deep and wide, cutting across demographic subgroups. Seventy-four percent of Democrats, 60 percent of independents and even 46 percent of the president’s own Republicans oppose tapping Americans without a warrant.

Voters’ views on this issue are quite robust, impervious to even the strongest arguments coming from the White House. We provided voters with arguments on both sides, including a strong statement from supporters, incorporating language used by the president and vice president. Even in the face of the administration’s message, 62 percent say the government should have to get a warrant from a court before wiretapping Americans’ international conversations, while just about half as many (32 percent) support the president’s position.

So-called “blanket warrants” generate opposition from 61 percent, whereas fewer than a third would allow courts to issue warrants that would not have to name any specific individual. Here, a 52 percent majority of Republicans and 58 percent of conservatives join 72 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of independents in demanding that warrants be individual.

Democrats’ fear, of course, has always been that we might win the battle but lose the war on these issues — that voters may support constitutional rights in principle, but decide that those who defend them are too weak to confront terrorism. We probed that question directly, and just 36 percent of respondents said they would worry that a candidate who “took the view that wiretapping American citizens should require an individual warrant from a court … was not tough enough to deal with terrorism.”

Americans are tightly wedded to the constitutional rights we enjoy and are looking for public officials who will defend those rights in the face of an administration that willingly sacrifices them but has made us weaker in the battle against terrorism.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.