GOP uses Gitmo closing to win traction on national security

Republicans surveying the national political landscape believe President Obama’s plan to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay could be the impetus for a renewed focus on national security issues, a debate the GOP is eager to have.

As polls show most Americans approve of the job Obama is doing on issues like the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and others, Republicans are desperate to find an issue on which they can come out ahead. And though polls suggest the electorate remains divided on torture and Guantánamo, the GOP believes it can craft an effective argument.

One of Obama’s first executive orders as president required the prison, where as many as 800 terrorists and terrorism suspects have been held over the past six years, to close as of Jan. 22, 2010.

But Republicans point out that, nearly four months later, no plan for dealing with the remaining detainees has been offered. That has become a rallying cry, especially for Senate Republicans.

“Democrats have announced they want to close Gitmo, but they’ve crafted no plan to actually implement the closure, and that is reckless,” said Ryan Loskarn, a spokesman for the Senate Republican Conference. “Every day is another day in which we get closer to the closure deadline without Democratic leadership having produced a solution.”

Democrats in Congress say they have been hamstrung by the lack of a plan from the White House.

“If this were to drag out for another six months, I think [Republicans would] gain some traction. The only traction they’ve gained is among inside-the-Beltway types,” said one congressional Democratic aide. “It doesn’t help the fact that the White House hasn’t engaged.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden, Eastland and rejecting the cult of civility California governor predicts 'xenophobic' GOP will likely be third party in 15 years This week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request MORE (R-Ky.) seems intent on keeping the issue at the forefront, at least for now. The top Republican in the Senate has given eight floor speeches on the matter in the last 10 business days. He has written op-eds for major papers on the topic, and showed up at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing to question Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the subject last week.

Over the weekend, Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, devoted the GOP’s weekly radio address to Guantánamo detainees.

At least initially, poll numbers seem to suggest Republicans may be onto something. The most recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll shows just 33 percent of respondents think Guantánamo should be closed, while 53 percent say it should remain open. That’s down significantly from several polls conducted during Obama’s first week in office, when the public was evenly divided on the issue.

The poll, conducted April 22 and 23 among 900 registered voters, is the only issue on which Republicans may be able to draw a winning contrast with Obama. Other surveys have shown Americans fear a terrorist attack less than they have in the past six years.

And despite some Republicans, most notably former Vice President Dick Cheney, suggesting Obama’s policies are making the country less safe, the electorate does not agree. Just 21 percent said Obama’s policies are making the country less safe, according to an April 21-24 Washington Post/ABC News poll, while 32 percent said the president is making the country safer and 43 percent said there was little difference.

Overall, 62 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s handling of the war on terrorism, giving Republicans little hope of wiggle room.

But by picking and choosing their spots, Republicans may be able to find an opening. One proposal that has been floated would bring detainees who cannot be released to the U.S. and housed in prisons in Montana, Kansas or Virginia. But that idea quickly met with outraged opposition.

“People aren’t real excited about moving detainees here,” said Don Stewart, a McConnell spokesman. “If you ask anyone where constituents are on this issue, they’re with us.”

Added National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spokesman Paul Lindsay: “The Guantánamo issue puts Democrats in a particularly troublesome position of having to defend a flawed and unpopular policy that localizes national security.”

The NRCC has been heavily involved in using Guantánamo against Democrats. The committee used the prospect of Guantánamo detainees heading to prisons in the U.S. to hit Reps. Jim MoranJames (Jim) Patrick MoranDC theatre to host 11-hour reading of the Mueller report Bottom line Qatari embassy's correspondents weekend party light on jokes, big on dancing MORE (D-Va.) and Dennis Moore (D-Kan.), two Democrats who represent areas near prisons to which the detainees could be transferred.

The NRCC has also pressured Democrats to back legislation introduced by House GOP leaders that would prevent the importation of terrorism suspects, and late last week rapped Democratic members of the House Appropriations Committee for voting against an amendment from Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) that would have accomplished the same goal.

Republicans have long focused on national security issues as a key political tool. During a recent special election in New York, the NRCC produced a Web ad that used images from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to hit now-Rep. Scott Murphy (D).

But the GOP has a tightrope to walk, one that threatens to make Republicans look like they are trying to politicize national security. After one recent video using Sept. 11 footage, former National Security Council member Richard Clarke slammed Republicans for what he called “more desperate attempts from a demoralized party to politicize national security and the safety of the American people.”

Democrats have parroted Clarke’s criticisms while pointing out that the overwhelming majority of Americans say the economy is their top priority.

“The American people are tired of the Republicans’ fear-mongering and recognize that President Obama and the Democratic Congress are committed to turning our economy around and keeping our country stronger and safer,” said Ryan Rudominer, press secretary at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It’s telling that the Republican ‘Party of No’ is so devoid of new ideas that they are now taking their cues from Dick Cheney and are turning to the Karl Rove playbook, which has been completely rejected by the American people.”

Still, with the GOP facing a deficit on ideas that win widespread popular support, it is a tightrope the party must walk. And that’s what Republicans have begun to do.

“It’s the most unified I’ve seen [Republicans] since the election, on any issue,” the Democratic congressional aide marveled.