- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2003

The Democrats’ biggest challenge in 2004: Convince independent and swing voters that their party can protect the United States.

That’s going to be a hard, if not impossible, sell.

Polls show that Americans, by margins of 40 percent or more, trust President Bush and Republicans more than the Democrats to keep our nation safe from terrorism and other security threats. Yet the message coming from Democrats (including most of the party’s presidential candidates) is one of weakness, timidity and ambivalence on the most politically pivotal issue of our times.

Intense criticism is being heard lately from Democratic strategists and a few leaders — all of whom complain that the party’s opposition to the war in Iraq and continuous attacks on Mr. Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism is hurting Democrats. The gist of their ominous warning: If Democrats can’t show that they’re tougher than Mr. Bush on national security, the party faces the impossible in 2004.

With the nation on high alert as U.S. intelligence warnings about an al Qaeda terrorist strike increase, the security issue is even more critical for the Democrats — so much so that it has become a contentious debate within their party.

Consider these charges by top Democrats in just the past few weeks:

c”How can we win this election if we send a message of weakness on defense and security after September 11, 2001, to the American people?” Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut lectured his fellow presidential candidates at a debate in Columbia, S.C., earlier this month.

c”The American people agree with us on many vital issues — but they believe that we Democrats are weak and indecisive when it comes to standing up to dictators and terrorists, and when it comes to the primary responsibility of government: defending the nation,” Democratic strategists Donna Brazile and Timothy Bergreen wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal.

No matter “how compelling our positions” on other issues, “if voters continue to see us as feckless and effete [on national security] they will not listen to our message next year and they will re-elect Mr. Bush,” they wrote.

cIn a memo to party leaders, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council blasted the liberal wing of the party, which, they said, was “defined principally by weakness abroad.” If Democrats do not project a posture of strength and resolve on defending the country, they risk losing the trust and support of the voters, the DLC warned.

The Democrats once stood for a strong defense and made it one of the principal pillars in their party’s agenda.

In 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt called for building “the best-trained and equipped army in the world, the most powerful navy in the world, the greatest air force in the world.”

John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign platform “put national security first, and went on for 19 sections before even getting around to the domestic agenda,” the DLC noted. Kennedy ran on building a stronger defense posture.

Then came the Vietnam War and an orgy of Democratic opposition to a stronger defense and a muscular offensive against the “Evil Empire” (the Soviet Union). Ronald Reagan reversed course, but Democratic leaders fought him every step of the way, especially his vision of an anti-missile defense system.

By the time the 2000 election rolled around, polls showed Mr. Bush with a 3-to-1 lead over Al Gore on defense issues.

“Democrats have yet to fully comprehend the new reality of the post-September 11 world,” say Ms. Brazile and Mr. Bergreen. “Many prominent Democrats still seem not to grasp the profound sense of insecurity that so many people feel in our country.”

National polls taken by USA Today and others during the 2002 elections showed that this unease was particularly strong among women, many of whom voted Republican as a result, in spite of a lackluster economy.

During the upcoming election, it could get much worse for Democrats: Most of their presidential contenders have weak positions on national defense. For example, comments made by anti-war candidate Howard Dean suggested that he was unsure whether Iraq was better off without Saddam Hussein. He later backtracked on this issue.

Sen. John Kerry is trying to sound tough on defense lately, but he has a long record of voting with the doves for disarmament and criticizing the anti-missile system that Mr. Bush is backing. He voted for funding after the terrorist attacks but, with few exceptions, his votes on defense issues — as I have previously cited — have been nearly identical to Sen. Ted Kennedy’s.

Most worrisome, Mr. Kerry compiled a near-perfect lifetime liberal score of 93 percent on defense votes from the left-wing Americans for Democratic Action, and equally high grades from other dovish, anti-military groups.

In their Columbia debate, Mr. Lieberman accused Mr. Kerry of sending out a message of “ambivalence about the war which does not — will not give the people confidence about our party’s willingness to make the tough decisions to protect their security in a world after September 11.”

Mr. Kerry denied Mr. Lieberman’s charge. But what cannot be denied is that a majority of Americans no longer trust the Democrats to protect them in an increasingly dangerous world, and that weakness trumps all other issues.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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