Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- It was no surprise that Sen. Charles Schumer, a fiercely partisan Democrat always hunting for political advantage, ignited the furor over management of America's ports. But why did congressional leaders of George W. Bush's Republican Party join the attack?

A second-term president hovering around 40 percent in popular approval cannot expect full support on sensitive issues even from his own party. But President Bush contributed to lack of GOP backing with faulty White House outreach to Capitol Hill, followed by his injudicious veto threat against still undefined legislation.

Beyond the Bush political operation's shortcomings, deeper problems are reflected by overwhelming public opposition to a company owned by the government of a close Arab ally operating U.S. ports. Polls suggest the darker side of the American mind: isolationist, protectionist, nativist and xenophobic. Bush's ceaseless efforts to rouse his countrymen to support the war against terrorism may have unleashed the dogs of anti-Arab prejudice.

The firestorm over whether Dubai Ports World should be permitted to replace a British company in control of U.S. ports is unexpected largesse for Democrats, desperate to regain control of Congress this year. Left-wing Democrats led by Schumer and Sen. Hillary Clinton seek the opportunity to trump Bush and the Republicans on their strong suit of national security. Newly appointed Sen. Robert Menendez, a less than appealing candidate shown by early polls to be trailing in the Democratic bastion of New Jersey, jumped into the fight against the port deal.

Republicans hurriedly joined the attack on the United Arab Emirates, an indispensable U.S. ally in the Middle East. Rep. Vito Fossella, suggesting that the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in his New York City district was imperiled by UAE management of the ports, compared the deal to letting Arabs control security at American airports. In fact, the Dubai company would not affect U.S. government security, and the ports would remain under state and local ownership. Rep. Peter King, the new Homeland Security Committee chairman, has acted as though he wanted immediate House action by suspending the rules.

It is not merely New Yorkers King and Fossella and other lawmakers with ports in their districts who have spoken out. In South Dakota, far from saltwater, freshman Sen. John Thune said Arab management of the ports gave him "heartburn." With Congress in recess, Thune typified lawmakers encountering massive public resistance back home. That mood was generated by the feeding frenzy on cable television and the Internet that, in turn, was triggered by bipartisan Congressional attacks.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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