President Bush’s recent speech on Iraq was a good one. And apparently he’s going to give a couple more in the next week or two. Unfortunately, there is no political value-added between now and the election for this rhetorical Iraq offensive. All this talk about Islamofascism and Hitler may be intellectually and historically correct. But it will not resonate. It is too late in the day.
Folks are very unhappy about Republican management of the war. Voters on the left want an immediate pullout — a terrible idea. People on the right, like me, want to win the war, but the president is not unveiling a truly new victory plan. His own Pentagon just issued a gloomy Iraq report that chronicles near-civil-war sectarian violence and the security problems in that country. Voter opinions have already hardened on Iraq, and it is doubtful that the commander in chief is going to change any of this in the next 60 or so days. It may well be that things have improved in the Sunni Triangle in the last month, with 12,000 additional U.S. troops and something of a standoff with al Sadr and his army. But this will not resonate for the election.
It is too late to make this sale.
Instead, the president should be hammering away on homeland-security measures to protect against another terrorist attack. In the wake of the successful foiling of the London bomb plot by our British cousins, this is the issue that stands at the margin of the November elections. This is where the Republican party has true value-added. Defense against terrorist bombings should be made into a wedge issue for this election. There will be critical votes in Congress on the Patriot Act and FISA-related issues concerning electronic surveillance — which is the absolute key point in our homeland defense. The president and the Republican congressional leadership should press for aggressive counterterrorism measures on surveillance and detention.
The ACLU Democrats will keep carping about chemical plants, bridges, and tunnels. And Republicans must counter with highly publicized votes on surveillance expansion. This is what stopped the terrorists in the London plot. Folks know this. There’s also the issue of probable-cause warrants, which could delay FISA approval. Crucial days could pass as the government authorities argue needlessly about criminal intent and the matter of detaining suspects for tough-minded interrogation. Republicans must get loud on this front. There also should be no question about the legality and utility of the SWIFT financial tracking program. Or NSA wiretapping of al-Qaeda phone calls to people living in the United States. Or telco data-mining for phone-call patterns here at home.
These are the issues that Mr. Bush and the GOP leadership should be talking about again and again. This is an area of Democratic softness. Repeated votes should be held, bolstered by presidential speeches. Along with falling gas prices at the pump, and a strong job-creating economy (where third-quarter GDP released in late October is likely to be 3.5 percent), terrorism is the issue that can shave Republican losses and conceivably even save their majority in Congress.