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The National Security Gap

The real reason Democrats are crying McCarthy on questions of patriotism.

12:00 AM, Oct 2, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
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DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATES for the White House, Senate, and House face a huge difficulty in 2004: They are on the wrong side of the national security gap. The public doesn't trust their party's collective judgment on the key issues of war and terrorism. The 2002 elections underscored the vulnerability of the Democrats on these issues, and the prospect of a presidential campaign dominated by national security concerns unnerves even veteran operatives.

Which explains a series of partisan attacks on the president, including the "Bush knew" campaign, the "16 words campaign," criticism over reconstruction in Iraq, and now the Wilson affair. In each instance prominent Democrats have attempted to undermine the Bush administration on issues relating to national security.

The first two attempts to close the national security gap failed to impress the public. The postwar difficulties in Iraq have brought down the president's approval ratings, and the jury is out on whether Robert Novak's column will have any lasting impact.

Perhaps the most daring tactic in the race to fill the gap is the attempt to immunize Democratic candidates from criticism of their judgment on matters of national security. The perfect example of this campaign came in last week's New Republic, in the now much-discussed article on Bush hatred by Jonathan Chait.

Deep in the article Chait wrote:

Having spent the better part of a year denying the need for any Homeland Security Department at all, Bush aides secretly wrote up a plan with civil service provisions they knew Democrats would oppose and then used it to impugn the patriotism of any Democrats who did--most notably Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a triple-amputee veteran running for reelection who, despite his support for the war and general hawkishness, lost his Senate race thanks to an ugly GOP ad linking him to Osama bin Laden.

The Cleland refrain is now as familiar as it is bogus, and the ad does not lead viewers to question Cleland's patriotism. The key attack in Chait's argument was not the Cleland campaign, however, but the much broader charge that "Bush aides . . . impugn[ed] the patriotism of any Democrats" who opposed the creation of the Homeland Security Department.

That's a charge of McCarthyism, of course, and false charges of such vile tactics are McCarthyite themselves. They are useful in scaring off discussion of judgment on matters of national security. If any Republican who challenges any Democrat's record on terrorism or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can be successfully charged with attacking another citizen's patriotism, the national security issues will get swept under the rug in a hurry.

On air I questioned Peter Beinart, the editor of the New Republic, closely on the evidence for Chait's broad accusation of McCarthyism among Bush aides. He hadn't edited the article, he told me, but would be pleased to send me "chapter and verse" supporting the allegation. Chait wrote the next day:

I plead guilty to constructing the sentence somewhat imprecisely. It was the Bush aides who wrote a Homeland Security bill that was almost certainly designed as a wedge issue. But it was not Bush aides who impugned the patriotism of Democrats who supported a slightly different version of a Homeland Security Department--it was Bush himself.

Chait continued:

On September 23, 2002, Bush said, "The House responded, but the Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people." As many have noted--see Ramesh Ponnuru, in his debate with me online--Bush used the phrase "the Senate" to refer to Democrats when the chamber was under Democratic control. The main point of this, of course, was that Bush manipulated his position on Homeland security entirely for political ends. First he opposed creating a new department when Democrats were for the idea. Then he came out for it at a moment when he was suffering politically due to disclosures about White House intelligence failures before September 11. Then, to distract attention from this story, he endorsed the department, but did so in a way that would guarantee Democratic opposition. In my opinion, calling opponents "not interested in the security of the American people" in the wake of a massive attack on American soil is tantamount to questioning their patriotism.

This response provides no evidence at all, of course, and the obvious dodginess of his argument as well as the lame reliance on the much discussed Bush speech led me to conclude that he hadn't really focused. So I sent another email, noting that Peter Beinart had promised me "chapter and verse." "Is that all the evidence you have to support the statement?" I asked. Chait's one word response: "Yes."