DEMOCRATS ARE HAVING a nervous breakdown--needlessly. Sure, they lost the 2002 election badly, but it wasn't a catastrophic defeat. They lost for a simple reason: Voters caught on that they weren't serious about the war on terrorism, including regime change in Iraq. So the one thing Democrats need to do is adopt a tough position on fighting terrorists. Then they'll be competitive again. And this, oddly enough, will allow them to play up the domestic issues that favor them over Republicans.
Sad to say, since the November 5 election, Democrats have been going in the wrong direction, trivializing or otherwise dissing the security issue. They've accused Bush of putting Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction on the national agenda solely to help Republicans in the election. They've insisted the homeland security issue was exploited unfairly, chiefly to question the patriotism of Democratic candidates such as Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia. And ex-vice president Al Gore has attacked President Bush for supposed massive violations of civil liberties by jailing suspected terrorists without formal charges.
All this leaves Democrats as vulnerable as ever on the overriding issue of our time, security. Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Americans have had an understandable interest in being protected from terrorism. Bush has responded by declaring a global war on terrorists, jailing suspects at home, proposing a new Department of Homeland Security, and demanding that Iraq disarm completely. A few Democrats have endorsed Bush's efforts fully, but many more have opposed or quibbled over important parts of his anti-terrorist agenda.
Worse, Democrats have refused to treat the issue of security as paramount. This fall, they gave the issue short shrift, or at least tried to. They declared their desire to deal as quickly as possible with security matters--a homeland security agency, a resolution approving war with Iraq--so they could take up more important domestic issues. They blocked creation of the new homeland security department for the less than earthshaking reason that government unions objected to it. They sought to delay a vote on a war resolution until after the election, then decided to do the opposite and quickly hold a vote.
As a result Democrats have created an image of being weak or indifferent on national security. In his whirlwind campaigning, Bush played on this image successfully, shaping the campaign around the security issue. He prompted a huge Republican turnout and helped GOP candidates for the House and Senate.
What should Democrats do? The first thing is to stop treating issues such as extending unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage as more significant than protecting the American people from terrorism. Next, they need to develop a security agenda that could offer a critique from the right. Some Democrats have already done this on the issue of Saudi Arabia, criticizing the Bush administration for coddling a country that funds terrorists.
True, attacking Bush from the right would be difficult for many Democrats who feel more comfortable in the peace camp. But the longer Democrats act as if Bush is going overboard in the war on terrorism, the worse it will get for them politically.
It makes sense that Democrats want to talk up the health care, education, and income security issues on which the public thinks they are most trustworthy. But so long as Democrats fail to neutralize the security issue, the public will have minimal interest in their stands on domestic matters. And they can neutralize that issue the same way Republican have neutralized the education issue--that's by taking security concerns seriously, dwelling on them, coming up with their own hard-nosed agenda for pursuing the war on terrorism, and staying clear of attacks on Bush for doing too much to fight terrorism. Doing too much is what the public likes.
A Democratic party that's viewed as tough on terrorism is a party that stands a chance of making headway against Republicans in 2004. After all, they're only a few seats down in the Senate, a dozen or so short in the House, nearly even in governorships, and but a tad behind the GOP in controlling state legislative houses. Should a real economic downturn occur, Democrats would be in a position to capture everything they've lost in the past decade. But only if they've dealt with the security issue first.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.