The challenge of terrorism favors the Republican Party

The Argument

A number of persuasive books elaborate how anti-terror issues conflict with traditional Democratic doctrines.

Books

February 02, 2003|By David W. Marston | David W. Marston,Special to the Sun

"[Apocalyptic religious terrorists] are like cunning beasts of prey; we cannot reason with them, but we can -- if we work at it -- outsmart them, set traps for them, cage them or kill them."

-- Why Terrorism Works, by Alan M. Dershowitz

When "It's the economy, stupid!" propelled Bill Clinton into the White House in 1992, the economy was actually on the threshold of a historic bull run. So if Democrats could win then, running against Republican stewardship of a soon-to-be-robust economy, why didn't the dismal economic picture in 2002 --- stock market hemorrhaging red ink, massive layoffs and bankruptcy filings in major industries, an accelerating drumbeat of gross corporate malfeasance (some uncomfortably close to the Bush administration) -- translate into big Democratic gains?

The reason, many thought, was Sept. 11. Antiterrorism apparently trumps even a badly sputtering economy: That was the lesson of 2002, and the popular president's campaign-closing blitz made the difference.

All true. But the more profound lesson of 2002 is that antiterrorism has now replaced Social Security as the touch-it-and-die "third rail" of American politics, a sea change that threatens the Democratic Party with long-term minority status.

Antiterrorism as a political issue is not just about being for or against specific international actions (the invasion of Iraq, for example); rather, it also encompasses numerous domestic issues seemingly unrelated to terror. And on many of these, the perceived "strongest" antiterrorism vote risks the alienation of important Democratic constituencies.

Case in point: former Democratic Georgia Sen. Max Cleland.

In 1968, just a month before the end of his Vietnam tour, Max Cleland lost both legs and his right arm in a grenade explosion.

After an unimaginably grueling rehabilitation, Cleland launched a remarkable political career: At age 28, he was elected to the Georgia State Senate, in 1977 he was appointed to head the U.S. Veterans Administration, the youngest administrator ever, and in 1982 he was elected Georgia secretary of state. In 1997, despite being outspent 3-to-1, Cleland succeeded Sam Nunn in the U.S. Senate.

In the Senate, Cleland was quickly recognized as one of the country's rising Democrats. The London Times said Cleland was "rapidly becoming America's most extraordinary politician." Cleland served on the Senate Armed Services Committee, specialized in military affairs and veterans' issues, and received numerous awards from veterans' groups. His Senate voting record was described as "moderate liberal," and, like most other Democrats, he voted against eliminating workers' civil service protections in President Bush's proposed department of homeland security.

That vote cost Cleland his Senate seat.

The astonishing fact that a triple amputee, a decorated war hero, could be vulnerable on homeland security, based on a single, seemingly routine labor vote, suggests the potent reach of antiterrorism as a political issue. (Belatedly, Democrats saw this and joined Republicans in passing a bill with greatly reduced labor protections.) Several new books make it clear that future antiterrorism debates will inevitably involve other even more sharply divisive domestic political issues -- e.g., warrant-less surveillance, privacy issues, military tribunals, domestic intelligence practices -- on which the strongest antiterrorism vote runs directly contrary to the traditional Democratic position.

Indeed, in Why Terrorism Works (Yale University Press, 256 pages, $24.95), Harvard professor Alan M. Dershowitz acknowledges that the post-Sept.11 balance between liberty and security will be profoundly different. Even such cherished maxims as "It is better for 10 guilty criminals to go free than for even one innocent person to be wrongfully convicted" are now ripe for reconsideration.

In this provocative ("One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter") analysis, Dershowitz quotes, with implied approval, Justice Robert Jackson's observation that "The Constitution is not a suicide pact." Thus, in defining post-Sept. 11 civil liberties, virtually everything is on the table. Moreover, Dershowitz contends, international terrorism "is quickly becoming the defining issue of our age," and he suggests, ominously, that the main difference between conventional war and the war on terror is that "This war may never end."

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