He who frames the issues tends to determine the outcome of the election. That's an old rule of political consultants, the first and most important rule, really.
It's a rule that George W. Bush's chief political strategist Karl Rove knows well. And it's a rule that he and Bush -- and events -- have put into operation over the last few weeks. For months, the central issue of the off-year election has been, Hasn't Bush kept us too long in Iraq? Now, the issue seems to have become, Who can keep us safe against the Islamofascist terrorists who want to kill us and destroy our society?
The first question tends to help the Democrats. The second tends to help Bush and the Republicans.
Events have played a part here. The breakup in August of the London plot to bomb airliners over the Atlantic came just hours after Ned Lamont's defeat of Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut primary put an antiwar face on the Democratic Party. The fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 put the burning Twin Towers, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., back on television screens. "The Path to 9-11" docudrama on ABC -- the No. 2 rated program on Sept. 10 and No. 1 on Sept. 11 -- reminded us that the terrorists were on the attack as long ago as February 1993, the date of the first World Trade Center bombing.
Bill Clinton and members of his administration objected to the docudrama, for fear they would be seen as not having done enough to protect us against terrorists. But we all know that the Clinton administration did not do enough, and that the Bush administration did not do enough in its first eight months. We're less interested in blaming them than we are in making sure we elect people who will keep us safe.
Bush's series of speeches since Labor Day have put the focus clearly on the question of who will keep us safe. And the legislative issues raised by forces unsympathetic to the administration and which Bush has now put squarely before Congress will likely sustain that focus.
The first issue was raised by the Supreme Court's decision in the Hamdan case last June. The court did not challenge the government's contentions that the defendants were unlawful combatants under the Geneva Convention and that they could be tried by military tribunals. But it ruled that Congress had to set forth rules for interrogations and trials. Bush's proposal seems to be opposed by most Democrats and -- complicating the politics -- by Republican Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and John Warner.