Homeland security and the Ashcroft card

Posted: May 31, 2003 12:00 AM

 It's hardly surprising that Democratic presidential candidates have been ratcheting up their attacks against President Bush's homeland security efforts. The War on Terrorism is going to be the pivotal issue, and they have nothing positive to offer in that department.

 True, they've still got the Florida Supreme Court out there providing some ray of hope. But the electoral votes of the other 49 states will likely be decided at the ballot box unless some of the other imaginative, liberal state Supreme Courts adopt the 2000 Florida "precedent."

 So when all else fails, go negative. And that's exactly what they're doing. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe recently took a break from complaining about Republican deficit spending just long enough to lambaste Republicans for not spending enough on homeland security.

 Most of the Democratic presidential candidates are marching in lockstep behind McAuliffe. Senator John Edwards said, "We should not cede this issue to a party and a president whose idea of homeland security is plastic wrap and duct tape."

 Congressman Dick Gephardt said America is "vulnerable to future attacks because this administration has not done its job and has not increased our ability to have homeland security." Senator John Kerry said Bush is trading homeland security for tax breaks for the wealthy.

 Indeed, slamming Bush's homeland security performance must be a condition precedent to becoming a Democratic presidential candidate. As soon as Senator Joe Biden started hinting at a possible run, he tore into Bush on this very issue. He said on "Meet the Press" that Amtrak is at risk and we aren't protecting our nuclear power plants, among other things. Now he'll be eligible for campaign funding.

 Taken together these are bogus partisan charges. They keep complaining about how much money we're spending, but there is never enough money to satisfy their appetite for government largesse. Instead of using the only measure they understand -- how much money the government throws at something -- they might consider the results. Can anyone reasonably argue with our domestic security record since 9-11?

 There are so many things going on behind the scenes that we'll never know about in this war. The nature of counterterrorism is such that its operations have to be kept secret. But you can be sure that President Bush is not just waiting around hoping we don't get hit again.

 He's aggressively pursing terrorists -- not just by going after the states that sponsor them, but through a multifaceted and complex plan of counterattack. In its latest issue, U.S. News & World Report reveals "the inside story of how U.S. terrorist hunters are going after al Qaeda." Our agents are hacking into foreign banks, using secret prisons overseas and coordinating with friendly Muslim intelligence sources. They have targeted terrorist leaders, taken prisoners and "amassed files equal to a thousand encyclopedias." Does that sound like mere duct tape to you, Senator Edwards?

 Of course not, but when the facts don't suit them, they can level false charges. If those don't work, there's one final safety valve. They can always play the Ashcroft card.

 There is nothing like mentioning the name "John Ashcroft" to stir up the Democratic Party base. And it's a twofer -- they get to incite their base while simultaneously attacking Bush's domestic war on terror, since Ashcroft is a pivotal player in it. As if on cue, the candidates have been lining up to take pot shots at Ashcroft.

 John Kerry said, "When I'm president, there will be no John Ashcrofts trampling on the Bill of Rights." Senator Carol Moseley-Braun attacked him, too. And John Edwards said, "We see people like John Ashcroft, in the name of protecting America, in the name of fighting a war on terrorism, eroding our rights to privacy, eroding our civil liberties, eroding the very heart and soul of what makes this country great." Edwards campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri admitted that Edwards mentions Ashcroft every speech since he got such a strong reaction when he blasted him a few months ago. "It's always the biggest applause line," said Palmieri.

 So keep your eyes open. Democratic hopefuls will continue to hack away at the issue of domestic security, earnestly searching for that elusive spot of vulnerability in President Bush. The attacks will grow shriller as the election approaches. But the Democrats are walking a fine line. Voters, including swing voters, may start to view the attacks themselves as detrimental to our security efforts. Then what will they do? Simple: Blame Ashcroft.