- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

A country on “orange alert” is a no-win political situation for President Bush, who can’t take credit for the absence of terrorist attacks and must watch Democrats running for president argue that all his efforts to thwart domestic carnage are doomed to fail.

Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and front-runner for the Democratic nomination, mused last week that the heightened alert during the holidays is proof that the United States is still vulnerable to attack.

“If we are safer, how come we lost 10 more troops and raised the safety alert?” Mr. Dean asked a crowd of supporters, adding that the Bush administration is “not only a failure, but the most dangerous administration in my lifetime.”

At Sunday’s Democratic presidential debate, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts said that Bush has “run an ineffective war on terror,” and he has mocked the president for raising the threat level to orange, or “heightened” alert.

“When the threat of terrorism is increasing, I’ll do more than simply issue an orange alert,” Mr. Kerry said on Dec. 22. “As president, I’ll make sure that towns and cities don’t have to bear all the burdens of increasing security.”

Steven Hess, presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, said that when it comes to the politics of terror alerts, Mr. Bush has little choice but to let the debate be largely one-sided in favor of the Democrats.

The president can’t boast too much about protecting the U.S. from terror attacks, he said, because that argument could be violently refuted at any moment.

“That’s the balance between being an incumbent and a challenger,” Mr. Hess said. “The folks on the outside, by definition, are supposed to attack. Since [the Democrats] want to get in the White House, they are going to look for whatever advantage they have.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday that the administration is not concerned that frequent increases in the terror-alert level might lead some to say Mr. Bush is “crying wolf.”

“I think the American people understand that we are living in a post-9/11 world,” said Mr. McClellan. “And when we have specific and credible information, we will share that information and will act on that information in order to make sure we are doing everything we can to protect the American people.”

Dean spokesman Jay Carson said criticizing Mr. Bush on national security is entirely legitimate, and that the raising of the terror alert makes Mr. Dean’s point that “America is not safer.”

“This isn’t a political issue at all,” Mr. Carson said. “This has been a substantive point from the beginning. The war in Iraq diverted important resources and manpower away from the real defense of this country.”

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a division of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said Mr. Dean’s argument “is a non sequitur.”

“I don’t think much of Mr. Dean’s statement,” Mr. Marshall said. “We ought to be able to comprehend that Saddam and al Qaeda represent separate threats, but are related. They both spring from a region of the world that fosters pathologies that are dangerous to America.”

It’s easy for Mr. Bush’s foes to criticize homeland security, because the White House can’t easily take credit for mostly invisible victories in the war on terror, said James Jay Carafano, senior fellow for defense and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation.

Voters, Mr. Carafano said, understand that no one can magically make the U.S. invulnerable to terrorist attack, and don’t expect perfection. He likened the efforts to the execution of World War II by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“No one wanted to fire FDR after the landings on North Africa were all screwed up,” Mr. Carafano said. “This is a long and protracted campaign. It would be unrealistic to think that a homeland-security plan could be developed and perfectly implemented in two years.”

Polls show Democrats have an uphill battle to convince the public they can handle national security better than Mr. Bush. More than six in 10 people polled, according to the Associated Press, approve of the way the president is handling the war on terror.

“As long as everything is going well, the Dean attacks really sound a bit like whistling in the dark,” Mr. Hess said. “But if things go badly, the president will have a hard time defending himself even when, rationally, people understand the difficulty of the job.”

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