- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Finding the right tools and resources to prosecute the war on terror is among the most seminal issues confronting policy-makers today. Not surprisingly, which political party possesses the best ideas, plans and resolve to win this battle also has significant electoral implications. Pundits even coined the term “security moms,” describing a constituency deeply apprehensive about extremist threats and motivated to vote based on these concerns.

But how this issue plays out in midterm elections is still a bit fuzzy. It’s confusing because voter expectations about Congress’ role in fighting the war are somewhat unclear. So, which lever voters pull in the fight against terrorism will determine the size and shape of both houses of Congress.

The president’s part is unambiguous. As commander in chief, he’s in charge of national security according to the perceptions of most U.S. citizens. And during times of war, his power only grows compared to Congress. As Alexander Hamilton said in Federalist No. 8, “It is of the nature of war to increase the executive at the expense of the legislative authority.”

Yet powers flowing to the president during times of war do not abdicate congressional responsibility. But how should rank-and-file lawmakers describe this function to their constituents when they challenge the opposition in November?

Today, most Democrats reflexively oppose President Bush. Yet it wasn’t always that way. A pandemic of partisanship now infects just about everything in Congress these days, including policy issues that were formerly polarization-free zones.

Robert A. Caro’s book, “Master of the Senate,” recounts a fascinating story about Democratic strategies in the realm of foreign policy. Fifty years ago, America was not fighting terrorism, but instead engaged in a Cold War against communism. After his colleagues elected him Democratic leader of the Senate in 1953, one of Lyndon Johnson’s first acts was to rally his party around President Eisenhower. The president found himself disagreeing with some Republicans in the Senate over the future of the Yalta accords, but instead of using these differences to drive a wedge with the White House, Johnson committed Democrats to support Eisenhower. “There is in the president’s resolution no trace of partisanship,” Johnson said. “It is to be hoped that the resolutions — as written by the president and his advisors — will receive the unanimous approval of the Senate.”

But that was more than 50 years ago, and the adage that politics ends at the water’s edge has drowned in contemporary partisanship. It’s a sad reflection of today’s polarized age, but if Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid issued a statement like Johnson’s, committing his caucus to stand behind Mr. Bush in the war on terror, his partisan colleagues might send the minority leader packing to Nevada. Ironically, in an age of hyperpartisanship, for most Democrats, fighting the war by supporting the commander-in-chief is a non-starter. Just ask Sen. Joe Lieberman.

On the other hand, most self-identified Republicans want their representatives in Congress to help the president fight the war by providing tools like the Patriot Act and authorizing new terrorist surveillance programs. Even this week’s intraparty flap about trials and treatment of terrorist detainees will likely get resolved in a way that preserves the interrogation program. Despite the fond wishes of the left, even this dispute among Republicans won’t cloud clear differences between the two parties on providing the president with the tools he needs.

But what about voters who don’t identify with Republicans or Democrats? I believe they see those who barbarically murder innocents as a fundamentally different type of enemy, requiring tougher and more aggressive tools. They recognize the danger of terrorism. In a late August survey, Dutko Research found independent voters rank terrorism as the second most important issue for Congress to address, just behind Iraq. Independents came closer to Republicans, who ranked terrorism first, than to Democrats, who ranked it sixth.

This is significant, because on many other issues, independent voter sentiment these days is closer to Democrats. But terrorism in their minds is different; the stakes are too high. They don’t want a rubber-stamp legislature, yet they also do not endorse obstruction simply for political blood sport. In the end, I believe more of these independent voters will side with a lawmaker who recognizes that ruthless enemies deserve the toughest possible response. They want Congress to fight terrorism by checking partisanship at the door.

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