- The Washington Times - Monday, October 29, 2001

The politics of security has emerged as the defining issue in next year's congressional elections as both parties mold their platforms to emphasize public health, jobs and the military.
Gone, at least for the moment, are traditional partisan topics such as tax cuts, prescription drugs and the minimum wage. Even education, nearly always the top issue in opinion polls, has slipped two or three notches as the nation focuses on the anthrax threat and the war against terrorism.
"Both parties have to fashion a security platform," said Marshall Wittman, congressional analyst at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "The party whose agenda promotes security will prevail" in 2002.
The challenge for Democrats, pollsters and analysts say, is to support President Bush in the war on terrorism while convincing voters that they are better equipped than congressional Republicans to improve the economy.
For Republicans, the difficulty will be promoting an image as the party of job security while remaining faithful to the Republican Party's ideals of smaller government and less dependence on federal aid.
"I cannot remember a period where a party in recession and war was able to maintain fiscal restraint and limited government," Mr. Wittman said.
Indeed, Mr. Bush, the Republican Party's standard-bearer, campaigned last year on the notion that government is not the solution to people's problems.
But since Sept. 11, he has presided over the creation of a new federal agency, the office of homeland security, and encouraged tens of billions in emergency spending for the nation's recovery from the terrorist attacks.
While Mr. Bush has earned job approval ratings as high as 90 percent in doing so, few deny that the terrorist attacks have changed the political landscape dramatically.
"The common thread in this climate is the paramount importance of security," said House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma in a recent memo to colleagues.
The debate over airline security in the House is an early test of that new dynamic.
The House is preparing to vote on a plan this week that would give the administration flexibility to make some baggage screeners federal employees, with others to be hired by private contractors.
"We need to focus on security and benefits, not abstract Washington terms and constructs," Mr. Watts said. "The plan supported by President Bush and House Republicans is not about federalizing workers or not; it is about ensuring that Americans enjoy the most safety possible when they travel by providing as much flexibility as possible while ensuring strict federal standards."
Democrats are complaining that House Republican leaders have delayed action on the bill because they do not want to create a large new federal work force. Republicans, conversely, contend that Democrats are motivated by creating thousands of dues-paying union jobs to fund Democratic campaign coffers.
Traditionally, the party of the president loses seats in the midterm congressional elections. Stephen Hess, a congressional analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the national security crisis could benefit Republicans because the public generally gives the party better marks on defense issues.
But Mr. Hess cautioned that it's too early to give an advantage to either party, and that factors such as a continued recession, another bioterror attack or an unsuccessful military campaign in a harsh Afghanistan winter could influence next year's elections.
"Look at how the ground has shifted already," Mr. Hess said. "All the ground beneath us and beneath politicians is very soft at this time. It's full of sinkholes and anyone could drop into them at any moment."

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