Still, it's hard to ignore the elephant in the living room -- voters' perception of the gravity of the terrorism threat. President Bush's approval ratings, almost entirely a result of his resolve on the terrorism issue, are down from the first months after Sept. 11 but still, as Gallup says, "exceptionally strong compared to past presidents at this point in their terms."
By contrast, the Democrats have managed to look consistently weak and vacillating on terrorism and war. It often seemed that the official party position was to hope that war and terrorism would disappear so that Republicans could be punished at the polls for corporate crime and a poor economy. In September, The New Republic called the Democrats "a party of bystanders, a party without a position on the issue that matters most."
Worse, they have consistently misplayed a reasonably strong hand. Tom Daschle foolishly blocked the creation of a Department of Homeland Security in a dispute over nonunion jobs. This allowed Republicans to argue that filtering money to a Democratic constituency (unions) was more important to Daschle than protecting the nation.
Lunacy was a problem for Democrats, too -- the outbursts from Hollywood sages such as Barbra Streisand and Harry Belafonte, the "Bush is a terrorist" signs at anti-war rallies, and the astonishing folly of the Baghdad Democrats -- Democratic congressmen who showed up in Iraq to oppose the war, inviting comparison with Jane Fonda in Hanoi. Is this any way to run a campaign?
Many voters still aren't sure that the Democrats take terrorism seriously. "The Emerging Democratic Majority," the influential new book by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, treats "the fear of terror" as a passing phenomenon that will recede and allow Democratic dominance as "Americans begin to focus again on job, home and the pursuit of happiness."
Other voters are bothered by a constellation of ideas among some core Democrats: a vague but persistent hostility to the military, a feeling that American influence abroad is almost always pernicious, and a cultural relativism that endorses almost any action by "oppressed" nations. These attitudes are traditionally excused or tolerated by the chattering classes. But we can't be surprised when nonchatterers react against them in the voting booth.