Two months before high-stakes congressional elections, President Bush has dramatically reframed the debate over the war on terror and laid down a stiff political challenge to the Democrats.
This week's series of national-security speeches, pegged to Monday's 9/11 anniversary, differ in a key way from similar rounds of speeches in the last year: Mr. Bush made major news, foremost his proposal for new rules governing trials of terror suspects. The accompanying announcement that 14 "high value" terrorism detainees – including top Al Qaeda planners of 9/11 – are being moved from secret CIA prisons to the US military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, puts a face on his plan for trials.
Bush's speeches demonstrate the power of the presidential bully pulpit, even for a chief executive struggling in the polls. And in the first week of the fall campaign, marked by the traditional Labor Day kickoff, they confirm a political strategy long telegraphed by Bush adviser Karl Rove: to make heavy use of the terrorism issue for the third election in a row.
The question now is whether the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq – long framed as a central front in the war on terror – will undo the White House's goal of portraying Republicans as more capable than Democrats of defending the nation. For the Democrats, who control neither the White House nor Congress, the task is to convince enough voters in key congressional races to make the leap for change.
In 2004, "what the White House did was to use the war on terror like a helium balloon to pull up the sagging ratings in the war in Iraq," says Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "Now, Iraq is like a lead weight pulling down on the war on terror. So they believe they need a more aggressive public approach to explain what the president is doing and put his critics back on their heels."
The Democrats are saying, in effect, "no more Mr. Nice Guy."
"They feel as if they've been battered for two elections in a row on the security issue and reacted either passively or defensively, and there will be no more of that," says Mr. Ornstein.
The Democrats had planned to make headlines Wednesday with a Senate debate over their resolution recommending that Bush fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whom they blame for strategic failures in the Iraq war, but Bush's speech overshadowed the action on Capitol Hill. Republican senators killed the measure in a point of order declaring it irrelevant to the Pentagon spending bill under consideration.
Democrats face a greater challenge over the substance of Bush's proposed legislation to change the rules for military trials of terror suspects. Last June, the administration suffered a major blow when the Supreme Court struck down the existing rules. Now, Bush is taking defeat and turning it on its ear, going on the offensive by promoting a plan that he promises will bring the likes of Khalid Sheik Mohammed – the self-described mastermind of 9/11 – to justice. Civil libertarians complain Bush's proposal still does not adequately protect the rights of the accused. The president, for example, would allow hearsay evidence in the trials.
Democrats who aggressively challenge Bush run the risk of being portrayed as soft on terror. But internal Republican debate on the matter could provide cover for Demo- crats. Republican Sens. John Warner of Virginia, John McCain of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have drafted alternative legislation for military trials that would provide the kind of defendant rights that many military lawyers say are essential to due process, such as ensuring a defendant's right to know the evidence against him. The senators, all with military backgrounds, argue that denying such access would set a bad precedent for US military personnel if captured and tried abroad.
Republicans are also divided over how to craft legislation that would officially sanction the warrantless wiretapping program.
But Democrats aren't sitting back, assuming GOP debates won't be resolved, and they are trying to grab news attention on their own. Yesterday, Senate Democratic leaders introduced legislation called the Real Security Act of 2006, containing measures related to both Iraq and the larger war on terror. The proposal contains the so-called Reed-Levin resolution, which calls for redeployment of US troops out of Iraq this year; a provision for heightened security on transportation; rules for military trials of terror detainees; and other changes related to the war on terror.
Bush, meanwhile, delivered the latest in his series of 9/11 speeches yesterday in Atlanta.
"I learned a lot of lessons on 9/11, and one lesson is this: In order to protect the country, we will keep steady pressure, unrelenting pressure, on Al Qaeda and its associates," he said. "We will deny them safe haven. We will find them, and we will bring them to justice."
Bush called on Congress to pass legislation providing additional authority for the wiretapping program, which he calls the Terrorist Surveillance Program, along with reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The warrantless wiretapping program was recently ruled illegal by a federal judge in Detroit.
Earlier this year, Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Vice President Cheney agreed to a plan that codifies in law the wiretapping plan, but other proposals, some from Republicans, are under consideration in both chambers.