With about fifty days remaining before U.S. midterm elections, it is clear the adage “all politics is local” will not apply. An extraordinary number of foreign policy issues have aroused the American public this year and with polls showing a possible power shift in both houses of Congress from Republican to Democratic, some developments beyond U.S. borders have taken on the importance of make-or-break issues. A legislative flurry this week is illustrative. House Republicans, eager to emphasize their enforcement credentials on immigration, propelled passage of a bill that provides for 700 miles of fencing (ChiTrib) along the border with Mexico. Meanwhile, the Senate gave near unanimous passage to a $5 billion port security measure, hoping in part to wash off the residue of the Dubai Ports controversy that erupted in January. The Senate Judiciary Committee, in a party-line vote, approved a measure sought by the Bush administration permitting a domestic surveillance program (Bloomberg) with court review. The full Senate will consider the matter next week.
For Republicans, it is all part of a “security September” strategy aimed at promoting an issue they have consistently scored well on. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank quips that it amounts to an effectively simple slogan for Republicans this fall: “Vote Democrat and Die.”
Democrats have sought to capitalize on President Bush’s low approval ratings on Iraq, calling for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and raising the matter of troop withdrawals from Iraq. They also seized on the finding of Senate intelligence committee experts that there was no established relationship between al-Qaeda leaders and Saddam Hussein before the 2003 war in Iraq. There have been plenty of rhetorical barbs. Early in the week, House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) questioned whether Democrats "are more interested in protecting the terrorists than protecting the American people (AP)." Former Democratic presidential contender John Kerry (D-MA), echoing Republican attacks of the past, said a “cut-and-run” strategy by the Bush administration in Afghanistan had allowed the Taliban to revive and Osama bin Laden to remain free, ultimately posing a threat to U.S. safety (AP).
Complicating matters for majority Republicans have been some internecine battles. The opposition of four Republican senators to some aspects of President Bush’s plan to create terror tribunals has proved a major distraction to party leaders eager to take on Democrats over their perceived softness on terror (NYT). And the warrantless wiretapping bill approved by the Senate is facing a tougher passage in the House, where Republicans have been debating a competing measure with more restrictions on the program, sponsored by Representative Heather Wilson (R-NM), who faces a tough race for reelection. Separately, House Republicans in some districts have run advertisements distancing themselves from President Bush on Iraq and immigration. (The Hill).
Still, Bush did not back down from one of his most controversial plans at a Friday news conference, vowing to press Congress to adopt strong legislation on detaining, questioning, and trying terror suspects. In words expected to resonate through the end of the political season, the president said were it not for his anti-terror program, “our intelligence community believes al-Qaeda and its allies would have succeeded in launching another attack against the American homeland.”