The big politics of Bush's security plan

Never mind that the president's plan to reorganize the government to beef up US security is not all his.

Never mind that Mr. Bush has presented the plan as his own, neglecting to say it had its origin in a recommendation from former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, who headed a bipartisan commission looking into America's security problems.

Never mind, too, that Bush failed to mention that members of Congress – Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Rep. Mac Thornberry – had already authored proposals that would have implemented the Rudman-Hart plan, with some variations.

Never mind all that, because the president has decided (certainly after a thorough study of the idea by his aides) that this is the right thing to do and, therefore, since he, the president, is going to make a program out of all this for the good of the country, then, it's his program.

That's what presidents do. They know that with their high visibility and the availability of the bully pulpit they will be able to sell ideas that came from elsewhere.

And – in a sense – it's arguable that presidents give plans a new identity when they adopt them, no matter where they came from. The new presidential package is something new simply because ideas that were not going anywhere now have a good chance of being implemented.

Indeed, when Senator Rudman met with the Monitor breakfast group last Sept. 28, most of the questions from reporters focused on the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and on how US intelligence had failed. I can't recall that his commission's report on how to fix this problem got much attention, although it already had been completed. I think he said he could speak about it only in general terms.

But now government reorganization to help the United States fight this war against terrorism has become the highest legislative priority before Congress.

(The details of the president's plan will go up to Capitol Hill in a week or two.)

A good idea of how big this program is comes from looking at Democratic reaction. Sure, there's talk among Democrats of reshaping the bill to make it work better. But Bush has already said he will accept variations. He wants this reorganization approved by the first of the year. And it looks as if he will get it.

The best indicator of the bipartisan support that will move this bill forward is the strong words of approval coming from Democratic leaders like Senator Lieberman and Rep. Dick Gephardt. Indeed, Mr. Gephardt is saying, "Let's get it approved by Sept. 11."

(Republican congressional leader J.C. Watts told breakfasters on June 13 that Sept. 11 would be too early to get the job done. He called it a "massive undertaking" that he was certain would result in legislation – a little later.)

How political is this presidential proposal to set up a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security?

In one sense, it isn't political at all. No one would argue for a moment that this president isn't fully preoccupied with winning this war and that he doesn't feel this reorganization is absolutely necessary to attaining this victory.

Yet, at the same time, this legislation is a political move of mountainous proportions. And the president cannot be unmindful of the immense political consequences. For the rest of the year and, certainly during the fall political campaigns, this security legislation will have the top attention of members of Congress and, through the media, the national audience.

It's going to push all other issues aside or, at least, make them secondary, in the congressional races. Issues like the environment, jobs, abortion, education, and prescription drugs will have to play second fiddle to the big question that candidates will be hearing again and again: Are you helping Bush fight this war by pushing through the security legislation?

Pollsters long have noted that the two most powerful issues are war and the economy. They are the issues most likely to persuade supporters of one party to vote for candidates of the other party.

Bush certainly has the war issue working for him – particularly as this war-related legislation hangs over the fall election campaign.

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