Terror war retakes the political agenda

'Dirty bomber' arrest and new security agency helps Bush command political high ground.

Just when Washington's political life seemed to be returning to normal, the war on terrorism has returned with a vengeance, reclaiming its position as the overwhelming concern of the nation's capital.

For a time there Democrats had begun to focus again on issues they felt might turn to their advantage in the fall elections, such as Social Security and the cost of prescription drugs. President Bush resumed doing what presidents do as off-year votes loom – make quick trips to the hinterland to raise cash, support candidates, and promote his education policies and other items on the domestic agenda.

Then President Bush proposed the establishment of a new Department of Homeland Security – a mammoth undertaking which could preoccupy Congress for months. The administration announced the arrest of a man accused of plotting to explode a radioactive "dirty bomb" in America – reemphasizing the stakes in the continuing struggle against Al Qaeda.

Whatever the reasons for the timing of the White House moves, one of their effects is a change in Washington's – indeed, the nation's – political conversation, back to issues on which the administration is on solid ground with the public. "What we've learned in the past couple of weeks is how a president can command the political landscape during a time of war," says Marshall Wittmann, an analyst at the Hudson Institute.

This does not mean that normal fights over domestic issues will end, or that the president will stop those lightning trips to battleground states for a quick candidate back-slap and fundraiser.

But the gravity of war-on-terror issues can muffle partisan wrangling. Even raising legitimate questions becomes an issue in diplomacy, as much as partisanship.

Just look at the arm-in-arm comity of Tuesday, when leading members of Congress, including the leadership from both parties, emerged from a meeting with President Bush singing in bipartisan tones.

When reporters asked about objections to the White House proposal for the new Department of Homeland Security, even Democrats politely demurred, saying they would wait for hearings to reveal more details – but adding that they have concerns about big new bureaucracy.

Instead of division, the Democrats talked about Bush's willingness to listen. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, ranking member on the House Select Intelligence Committee, said that the president was very receptive to some of her worries about the ability of the proposed department to analyze intelligence.

Homeland analysts need to be able to pick the brains of CIA and FBI collectors, instead of being limited to reading their reports, said Representative Pelosi. "[Bush] understands the issue very well," she said.

The proposed department will probably still be the subject of stormy hearings in Congress, considering how it affects dozens of committees that now oversee agencies that might be gathered under the Homeland Security roof. For one, Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, senior Democrat on the powerful appropriations panel, is already asking pointed questions about how the centralization would actually make Americans safer.

But Democrats have seen how fiercely the White House moves to counter perceived criticism of its war-on-terror agenda. After last month's revelations about Bush receiving a hint of an Al Qaeda hijack plot in a pre-Sept. 11 security briefing, senior Democrats raised questions about what the White House knew, and when – only to be met with a blistering response from administration officials.

Something of the same tone surfaces on Capitol Hill. This week, the Democratic-controlled Senate is considering a hate crimes bill. That's a long-held Democratic priority, but it is also something that some in the GOP are charging should not now be occupying senators' time. "Right now we're at war, have troops in the field, and are fighting potential terrorism at home. To be working on a bill that affects only a small proportion of Americans shows that Democrats seem to have their priorities misplaced," says a senior GOP Senate aide.

All these developments in homeland security come at a time when approval of the president's handling of the war on terrorism was declining. Leaks about FBI and CIA handling of intelligence has lowered trust in government, and influenced a larger percentage of Americans to judge that the nation is no longer on track.

But the drop is relative: Overall, Bush's numbers remain high. A Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll conducted this month found Bush's favorable rating at 61 percent, down from 67 percent in April. And Americans approve of a new homeland security department: 70 percent give it their backing in a Washington Post survey.

This means Democrats may be mistaken if they think there is political gain in focusing on the administration's handling of the war. "The Democrats have to focus on domestic issues because that's where their strength is, and where the president's weakness is," says pollster John Zogby.

Given events, that's difficult for Democrats. The irony is that this year should be a good one for Democrats, with the public tending their way on domestic issues.

• Liz Marlantes, Francine Kiefer, and Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.

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