- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

The national commission looking into the September 11 terrorist attacks may see itself as nonpartisan, but Democratic officials and strategists say the panel’s report, due out just before their party’s July convention, can only hurt President Bush and help John Kerry.

“The report will be a perfect introduction to the Democratic convention on July 26,” said Bob Mulholland, the California Democratic Party spokesman who says the commission’s inquiry will be a political bonanza for the Democrats and Mr. Kerry’s presidential campaign.

“If you had to look at its potential political impact, it will be significant. Democrats all across America will be reinforced by this report on why they don’t like Bush. I don’t think anything in it will bear the headline that ‘Bush bears no responsibility for what happened.’ That’s just not going to happen. I think it will hurt Bush,” Mr. Mulholland said.

Mr. Mulholland is one of the Democrats’ most partisan pit bulls, known for his blistering broadsides against Republicans. But his pointed political prediction is shared by many Democrats who see the bipartisan, 10-member commission’s investigation largely in political terms and how much damage it can inflict on Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign.

But a key member of the commission, former Sen. Bob Kerrey, Nebraska Democrat, sought to disabuse hopeful Democrats of that notion yesterday.

“I think they will be disappointed in that regard. I don’t think it will be a political document,” he said in a telephone interview with The Washington Times. “Judging from the way the commission has worked thus far, my experience is that it is likely to be very bipartisan in its conclusion. At least, I’m hopeful it will be bipartisan.

“If you are asking is this going to be a document that will be terribly damaging to the president, I think the likelihood of that is not good,” he said.

However, the former lawmaker, who is now president of the New School University in New York, also delivered a warning to the administration about the way it has been responding to the commission’s work.

“If the White House continues to make political mistakes, it’s possible the commission could have a negative impact,” he said.

Nonetheless, other officials at the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States say that, for the most part, members have preserved the panel’s tenor of bipartisanship as they delve into the attacks and what the Clinton and Bush administrations could have done differently to better protect the country.

“All 10 of them have approached this as American citizens, concerned about the safety of the American people and the survival of our system of government and the freedoms we all enjoy. The terrorists didn’t care what the political affiliations of the 9/11 victims were,” commission spokesman Al Felzenberg said.

“There’s a hope that we can take [the commission’s work] out of politics. Maybe they can’t, but that’s the hope,” said another commission official. “The blame game only gets you so far.”

But a central issue in the Democratic presidential campaign is the way Mr. Bush has handled the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq, and interviews with a number of Democrats reveal that they are not shy about addressing the political implications of the commission’s work and expressing the hope and belief that Mr. Kerry stands to politically benefit from its final report.

“This could help Kerry’s campaign if the facts lead in that direction, and if the facts are there, the chips should fall where they may,” said Amy Isaacs, national director of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action.

“Anything that raises doubts about the Bush administration’s stewardship in the war on terror will help Kerry,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal Democratic grass-roots group.

Mr. Hickey, like other Democrats, thinks that last week’s testimony by former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke successfully raised such doubts “about Bush’s handling of the war on terror and their decision to go into Iraq.”

“It both reinforces doubts that many people already felt, but also carries the potential to cause likely Bush voters to re-evaluate what was one of Bush’s strengths,” he said. “This is not good news for Bush’s re-election campaign.

“I don’t think the commissioners are doing a lot of political grandstanding, but I think it has political implications,” Mr. Hickey added.

But Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institution national-security analyst who supports Mr. Kerry, thinks that the commission’s work “may help take some of the luster off Bush’s foreign-policy reputation, though it’s doubtful that it would make him less strong on national security than Kerry.”

“A report that hurts Bush doesn’t have to mortally wound him. All it has to do is level the playing field and by doing so, take a traditional Republican trump card off the table,” he said. “This is a fair issue for political debate, but only if the tone stays within bounds. Bush can be hurt by this more than Kerry.”

However, Mr. O’Hanlon added, “it’s hard to believe that [the commission’s report] will become much of a net negative for Bush, because whatever Bush could have and should have done prior to September 11, 2001, the fact remains that he had only eight months to do it.”

“And his predecessor did have much longer. It may be that the Clinton administration took terrorists somewhat more seriously than Bush. On the other hand, the specific sort of measures Clarke seems to be advocating could also have been done by Clinton,” he said.

Meantime, Democratic hopes that the commission will work to their political advantage this year may have been inspired by Mr. Clarke’s combative testimony that sharply attacked the president for not doing enough to combat the al Qaeda terrorists before September 11, Mr. Kerrey said.

“The Clarke testimony left that impression because he argued that we shouldn’t have gone to war in Iraq and that this diverted attention away from the war against al Qaeda. But the commission will not deal with that. We’re dealing with how 19 terrorists were able to pull off the attacks,” he said.

“I still think it’s likely the commission will have a 100 percent consensus, and as a consequence, it will be difficult to use the report for political purposes,” he said. “The recommendations of the commission are less likely to become law if it becomes a partisan document.”

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