Some centrist Democrats say attacks by their party leaders on the Bush administration’s eavesdropping on suspected terrorist conversations will further weaken the party’s credibility on national security.
That concern arises from recent moves by liberal Democrats to block the extension of parts of the USA Patriot Act in the Senate and denunciations of President Bush amid concerns that these initiatives could violate the civil liberties of innocent Americans.
“I think when you suggest that civil liberties are just as much at risk today as the country is from terrorism, you’ve gone too far if you leave that impression. I don’t believe that’s true,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a national-security analyst at the Brookings Institution who advises Democrats on defense issues.
“I get nervous when I see the Democrats playing this [civil liberties] issue out too far. They had better be careful about the politics of it,” said Mr. O’Hanlon, who says the Patriot Act is “good legislation.”
These Democrats say attacks on anti-terrorist intelligence programs will deepen mistrust of their ability to protect the nation’s security, a weakness that led in part to the defeat of Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, last year.
“The Republicans still hold the advantage on every national-security issue we tested,” said Mark Penn, a Democratic pollster and former adviser to President Clinton, who co-authored a Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) memo on the party’s national-security weaknesses.
Nervousness among Democrats intensified earlier this month after Democrats led a filibuster against the Patriot Act that threatened to block the measure, followed by a victory cry from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who declared at a party rally, “We killed the Patriot Act.”
After Mr. Bush sharply attacked Mr. Reid, saying lack of the Patriot Act “will leave us in a weaker position in the fight against brutal killers,” Senate Democrats dropped their filibuster and accepted a six-month extension. A Republican-backed five-week extension was adopted last week by the House and Senate.
Recent polls say 56 percent of Americans approve of the job Mr. Bush is doing to protect the country from another terrorist attack.
“In shaping alternative policies — particularly on national security, terrorism and Iraq — Democrats have to be extremely careful to avoid reinforcing the negative stereotype that has cost us so much in the last two national elections,” the recent DLC memorandum said.
Republicans led the Democrats by 40 percent to 36 percent on questions about which party can keep the country safe, 45 percent to 40 percent on which party can be trusted on national security and 48 percent to 38 percent on “which party can be trusted more to fight terrorism,” the DLC said.
Other Democrats argue that emphasis on protecting civil liberties in surveillance programs won’t hurt Democratic candidates.
“The Democrats’ vulnerability on national security is not a new problem, but standing up for civil liberties and the Constitution will not make the problem worse and, besides, it’s the right thing to do,” said Bill Galston, a one-time Clinton White House adviser.
“In standing up for civil liberties and the rule of law, Democrats are not undermining the party’s standing on national security,” he said.
White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy yesterday discounted the scope of the eavesdropping operation.
“This is a limited program,” he told reporters in Crawford, Texas, where Mr. Bush is vacationing at his ranch.
“This is not about monitoring phone calls designed to arrange Little League practice or what to bring to a potluck dinner. These are designed to monitor calls from very bad people to very bad people who have a history of blowing up commuter trains, weddings and churches.”
Bill Sammon contributed to this report.