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Fighting the War on Terror: Democratic Opportunity, Republican Illusion

Republican inaction about common-sense measures to make America more safe has opened the door for Democrats to take back this issue.
 
 
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Here's what we know: Democrats want to leave Iraq because it will allow us to focus on the world and make us safe from terrorism. Democrats are pushing for the adoption of the 9/11 Commission recommendations because we want to secure America. So is that message getting through? Clearly, not as well as they would like it to.

Republican inaction about common-sense measures to make America more safe has opened the door for Democrats to take back this issue. Republicans are playing a weak hand on security, but they play it -- they don't fold or sit on it. Democrats have a strong hand to play on security, but you can't win if you don't play.

Security is the sacred cow to Republicans. The last three federal elections were decided on security issues, with the Republicans winning two of them. In 2004, according to an ABC News poll, 49 percent of voters said they trusted only George Bush to protect them from terrorism, compared to 31 percent who trusted only John Kerry. Of the 49 percent who trusted only Bush, 97 percent voted for Bush, thus accounting for 48 percent of his 51 percent total.

The 2006 election was dominated by Iraq (according to a Greenberg Quinlin poll, 41 percent of voters said Iraq was the No. 1 priority), but the second-highest priority was protecting America from terrorism, which ranked No. 1 for 22 percent of voters. These so-called "security voters," broke 74 percent to 24 percent Republican, thus creating an 11-point headwind for Democrats to overcome on other issues.

If the threat of terrorism doesn't make you take notice, then these new numbers will. According to a new national poll conducted June 11-14, 2007, by Peter D. Hart Research:

  • If voters are asked who they would vote for Congress if an election were held today, 46 percent say Democratic and 31 percent say Republican -- twice the margin the Democrats held in November 2006.
  • When voters were asked who they would vote for if they were voting on who would protect them from terrorism, the Democrats' 15-point advantage completely evaporates.
  • Voters are more concerned than they were two years ago about a terrorist attack in America: In July 2005, 48 percent of voters said another major attack was "very likely;" today, 57 percent say it is "very likely" and an additional 32 percent say "somewhat likely."
  • When asked to rank the importance of issues, Iraq ranks first, with a mean ranking of 8.1 on a 10-point scale, but Protecting America from Terrorism is a close second at 7.9 -- ahead of education, healthcare, taxes and the budget, and far ahead of global warming.
  • When asked if Democrats have given too much or too little attention to various issues, 30 percent of voters say the Democrats have given Iraq "too much attention," and 37 percent say "too little attention." But when asked about "protecting America from terrorism by strengthening our homeland security," 9 percent of voters say Democrats have paid "too much attention," while 51 percent say "too little attention."

Voters think Democrats are emphasizing Iraq appropriately, while ignoring homeland security, but the issue is theirs for the Democrats' taking. After all, the Republicans only have the illusion of security to offer.

For example, 15,000 chemical plants in the U.S. store large quantities of hazardous materials. According to the EPA, there are 823 chemical facilities located near population centers where an attack on a single plant could cause 100,000 to 1 million casualties. One would think that a party built on security would address this issue. The Republicans did. They changed the way the EPA measured the impact on local communities, reducing the number of plants that could kill more than 100,000 to only 123. Then, the administration worked with the then-Republican Congress to proposed security assessments of these dangers, but let the chemical industry do the measuring of how safe the plants actually are. The result? Chemical plants in backyards across America that remain as unprotected and unmonitored as they were before 9/11.

Airline security has been improved somewhat by inspection of passengers, and Americans now have the safest shoes in the world, but less than 5 percent of the packages loaded on the plane in the cargo container is screened. For $4 billion a year, we get long inspection lines, only to get on planes with cargo where a consumer tracking number is the only means of security.

Cargo containers have been described as the most effective nuclear weapon delivery system ever invented, but almost six years after 9/11, only 5 percent of the nine million cargo containers that enter American ports each year are screened. One-hundred percent of containers could and should be screened, as the 9/11 Commission Public Discourse Project recommended. Instead, the Bush administration created a Byzantine classification system of cargo containers that label a small percentage as "elevated risk." They screen these, put out a press release, and the rest go untouched.

In the last election, Bush and Kerry agreed on one thing: The availability of nuclear devices and materials represented the greatest threat to American security, yet in his first budget after 9/11 and again in his proposed 2008 budget, Bush proposes to cut funds to secure nuclear materials.

This is Republican illusion of security.

It is an illusion voters simply don't want.

When asked what measures to protect America from terrorism they strongly favored, somewhat favored, somewhat opposed or strongly opposed, they ranked the two cornerstones of Republican security policy dead last among ten choices: Only 27 percent strongly favor continuing to fund the war in Iraq and only 36 percent strongly favor the Patriot Act.

What the public favors, and considers most effective, are improving cargo inspections (77 percent strongly favor); improving security of biological agents (74 percent strongly favor); improving security at chemical facilities (72 percent); increasing funding for first-responders (71 percent); improving nuclear plant security (68 percent); funding more border patrol agents (58 percent); and, installing devices in passenger aircraft to counteract shoulder-held missiles (46 percent).

While Republicans have spent something between $1 trillion and $2 trillion (when downstream costs are factored in) on a war in Iraq the public now abhors -- they spent nearly nothing on security measures voters want. This presents Democrats with a gigantic opportunity to neutralize the Republicans' historic advantage on security. Democrats should forget the false machismo of being "strong," listen to voters and take common-sense measures to improve security.

One of the Democrats' promises to voters in the November 2006 election was to legislate the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Progress Report. If they do this, voters are ready to reward them: 74 percent of voters say they would be "more favorable" toward Democrats if they legislated these recommendations. While Republicans are always quick to accuse Democrats of a willingness to spend too much money on everything, what voters fear about Democrats is that they will spend too little to protect America: 49 percent say they fear "Democrats will not invest enough on homeland security," while only 35 percent say they fear "Democrats will spend too much money."

Democrats are talking about it the right way too. When two statements were read to voters, one emphasizing the need to focus efforts on capturing and killing terrorists before they strike us -- both by attacking their bases and training camps overseas, and using strong law enforcement to identify and arrest potential terrorists in the United States (Republican frame), and the other emphasizing investing in measures to strengthen border and port security, installing detection devices that can find bombs hidden in cargo, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, and increasing security at nuclear plants, chemical plants and facilities where hazardous biological agents are stored (Democratic frame), voters agreed with the Democratic frame 68 percent to 26 percent. Democrats need not shrink from a debate about security.

Iraq can teach us a good deal about what Democrats can do to secure America and overcome their security deficit around election time. We have learned that Americans have come to trust Democrats on Iraq mainly because the talk and the action is consistent and constant. By contrast, much less legislative time and conversation is devoted to protecting this country. But the policies are right and the American people like what they hear. Democrats need to seize this opportunity. The alternative is to yield the debate to a Republican spin machine that is only giving the American people an illusion. Lets face it, illusions aren't going to be of much value when the next attack happens. Action and attention, on the other hand, could prevent us from ever having another attack -- and Americans know that.

Guy T. Saperstein is a Democracy Alliance partner and past president of the Sierra Club Foundation; previously, he was one of the National Law Journal ’s "100 Most Influential Lawyers in America."

 
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