- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Two year-end developments have emerged in the war on terrorism: More Americans now approve of President Bush’s policies, while fewer trust the Democrats to keep the country safe from harm.

If this trend persists into the 2006 midterm elections, the Republicans will undoubtedly hold on to their governing majority as voter doubts about the Democrats’ soft-on-national security posture continue to grow.

This month’s 10-point rise in Mr. Bush’s job approval polls on Iraq, along with continued majority support for how he has protected the U.S. from another terrorist attack represents a clear turnaround over the last year. It was due to a series of effective speeches explaining why we are fighting in Iraq, a successful election to install a new government there, and the likely start of U.S. troop withdrawals next year as Iraqi soldiers take over more of their country’s security.

Mr. Bush’s turnaround is well known by now. What is not so well known is the deep political damage Democratic leaders have done to their party’s future viability on the core issue of keeping America safe.

While Mr. Bush and the Republicans have remained tightly focused on the terrorist threat and the need to maintain a permanent war footing against it, the Democrats’ focus has been on setting pullout deadlines and attacking the government’s post-September 11, 2001, surveillance operations to keep the bad guys from killing us again.

But the Democrats’ message, aimed at their party’s noisy antiwar base, doesn’t play well with the rest of the country. Indeed, if their own polls are right — and I think they are — the message many voters get is that the Democrats’ can’t be trusted to defend America. This is the disturbing finding in a survey for the Democratic Leadership Council earlier this month by pollster Mark Penn, who polled for President Clinton.

While Mr. Bush’s newly strengthened polls on Iraq remain just below 50 percent, Mr. Penn’s poll found “the Republicans still hold the advantage on every national security issue we tested,” according to a DLC memo.

The poll showed Republicans held “a 40-36 [percent] lead on which party can better keep the country safe; a 45-40 lead on which party can be more trusted on national security; and a 48-38 lead on which party can be more trusted to fight terrorism.”

More ominously in political terms, Mr. Penn found, “Those GOP leads are double digit in each case among married voters with kids, middle-income whites and white women.”

Co-written by Mr. Penn and DLC founder Al From, the memo warned that their party’s leftist, antiwar message has been a loser before and threatened to inflict even worse damage on Democratic presidential prospects in 2008.

“In shaping alternative policies — particularly on national security, terrorism and Iraq — Democrats have to be very careful to avoid reinforcing the negative stereotype that has cost us so much in the last two national elections,” they said.

As for speedy troop withdrawal demands by party leaders, the memo warns they “could be playing with political dynamite if they call for an immediate pullout.”

Equally disturbing to many Democrats is the rising drumbeat of criticism over the antiterrorism Patriot Act and Mr. Bush’s use of the National Security Agency to conduct electronic surveillance to uncover terrorist plots against the U.S.

Party leaders have defined both of these antiterrorist programs as anti-civil liberties, when most Americans see them as necessary antiterrorism weapons critical in a shadowy war.

The Democrats’ growing criticism of the government’s efforts to protect us has raised warning flags in many parts of the party, including some top advisers in the Brookings Institution.

“I don’t think it’s enough for the Democrats to say the theoretical risk to civil liberties is as worrisome right now as the threat of terror,” says Michael O’Hanlon, Brookings senior national security specialist and adviser to Democrats on defense and foreign policy issues.

“When you suggest that civil liberties are just as much at risk today as the country is from terrorism, you’ve gone too far,” he said. “They better be careful about the politics of it.”

This is one of the chief reasons Messrs. Penn and From warned again this month that “Democrats are drifting unacceptably left,” especially on national security.

“It is important for Democrats to understand that… America remains a moderate to conservative country — particularly on economic and security issues,” they said.

But despite their party’s back-to-back presidential defeats, Democratic leaders continue to play to their far left constituencies. When will they ever learn?

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

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