- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2003

It is just beginning to dawn on some Democrats that their weak-kneed image on national security grew even worse in the war that destroyed Saddam Hussein's hated regime.
"The Democrats have lost credibility on national defense and security at a time when security and national defense are paramount in the public's views," says independent pollster John Zogby.
Public doubts over the Democrats' anemic stance on these issues had already cost them heavily during the 2002 elections. But now, the success of Operation Iraqi Freedom has reinforced the country's collective belief that the Republicans can do a better job protecting America and fighting terrorism. Surveyed by Republican pollster David Winston, 58 percent of 1,000 registered voters favored Republicans' handling of security issues, compared to 27 percent who sided with Democrats.
Victory in Iraq has already pushed Mr. Bush's job-approval scores into the low-70s and strengthened his party's national defense credentials. And in the administration's inner councils, there is a new confidence that even in an uncertain economy defense and homeland security will still be among the voters' top concerns when Mr. Bush seeks another term.
"By November 2004, the war on terror will remain a backdrop of the next presidential election, even though the economy may be the dominant issue," says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster in Atlanta and a White House adviser on public opinion shifts.
Congressional Democratic leaders are largely responsible for framing their party's message of bitter opposition to the war. After Baghdad fell, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said she has "absolutely no regret about my vote this war. The cost in human lives. The cost to our budget. We could have probably brought down that statue for a lot less."
Is the minority leader suggesting "fewer resources should have been allocated as our troops were placed in harm's way?" asked Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, chairman of the House Republican campaign committee.
In a blistering broadside against Mrs. Pelosi's remarks, Mr. Reynolds made it clear that Republicans were going to use the national security issue as a major weapon against Democrats in the 2004 election. Democratic leaders seem to be ready to line up as targets.
Then there was Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle's message that it was President Bush's fault that France, Germany and Russia did not join us in the war, instead of the ill-conceived intransigence driven by the big money deals those nations had with Iraq.
"I am saddened, saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war," Mr. Daschle told a union group just as U.S. forces were entering Iraq.
His remark triggered a wave of criticism, especially back home in South Dakota, forcing him to label his remarks as "ill-timed," though he did not retract them.
While our forces were fighting and dying to free Iraq, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the ultimate straddler on the war, was calling for "a regime change in the United States." Incredibly, he was "implying a resemblance between the American president and the crazed megalomaniac we deposed in Iraq," Noemie Emery of the Weekly Standard wrote last week.
These irresponsible anti-war outbursts by party figures are troubling some Democratic officials, and for the first time they are beginning to complain publicly.
"We haven't done a good job of getting our message out on the whole issue of terrorism and national security," said Arizona Democratic State Chairman Jim Pederson. "We have to come up with a common-sense response instead of an ideological or emotional response."
"What are we going to do if people entrust us with that responsibility [to protect the country from terrorists]? I don't think we've done an adequate job of expressing that," he told me.
Leon Panetta, the former Clinton White House chief of staff, is similarly disturbed by what he hears from his party's leaders. "One of the problems we face as Democrats is not having a clear position," he said in an interview. "Democrats must not be viewed as weak on national security and terrorism. That's not a good place to be going into this election.
"Democrats have to acknowledge what's happened in Iraq. The fact is that changing the government of Saddam Hussein … was the right thing to do," Mr. Panetta said.
But it's highly unlikely that Mr. Daschle, Mrs. Pelosi or other congressional party leaders will ever admit that. They are pandering to their party's core ultra-liberal, anti-war bloc, which is out of step with the general electorate. In fact, they are out of step with many Democrats, about half of whom backed the war, according to elections analyst Charlie Cook.
White House political adviser Karl Rove says next year's election "will be fought out over the security of the country economic security and the security from threat." Note how he subtly merges these two core political issues into one larger, strategic whole.
Right now, the Democrats are losing badly on the latter half of Mr. Rove's election-year equation among voters who know that U.S. national security remains a life-and-death issue.

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

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