Turf war

July 28, 2004

EVEN AS THE nation's cities struggle to ready themselves for future terrorist threats, President Bush and Democrat John Kerry are battling over ownership of the national unity inspired by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Mr. Bush, abandoning a plan to cede the stage to the Democrats during their national convention, suddenly busied himself Monday with the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, trying to remind Americans of his belated confidence-inspiring turn amid the wreckage of the World Trade Center in the wake of 9/11.

But Senator Kerry declared that's not good enough. There's no time to waste with excuses and backpedaling, he said yesterday on the way to Boston to accept the Democratic presidential nomination. He urged Mr. Bush to move quickly to accept the commission's advice, and declared that when it comes to protecting the nation from terrorists, "we can do better."

Certainly, the nation can do better. If the one-upmanship of these two candidates prods the balky wheels of government to move more quickly, it may be the most important contribution of the presidential campaign.

Particularly valuable would be a debate over how to recalibrate foreign policy, as Mr. Kerry said, to "isolate our enemies instead of ourselves."

Ownership of 9/11 is no mere debating point, of course. Polls suggest the confidence Americans retain in Mr. Bush to lead the war against terrorism is his principal asset in blunting Mr. Kerry's challenge. New York City obviously was chosen as the site for the Republican convention next month precisely to showcase the moments when the president was at the peak of his popularity.

Three years later, however, Democrats are questioning whether Mr. Bush has done enough since then to make the country safer -- or even made it more of a target.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton drew rousing acknowledgement from the convention when she observed that the 9/11 commission never would have been convened to investigate U.S. vulnerabilities that led to the attacks if there had not been pressure from the families of the victims.

President Bush fought the creation of the commission, tried to deny it classified information and greeted its recommendations last week noncommittally. GOP congressional leaders took off for a six-week recess, saying there wasn't enough time left this year to take up commission proposals.

But Mr. Kerry joined the call for immediate action, and the Republicans did an about-face. Congressional hearings are now scheduled for next month, and Mr. Bush, at his Texas ranch, held a conference call with advisers to discuss recommendations he might put into effect as soon as this week.

Sadly, we all own 9/11, and it's high time we got seriously about the business of doing all we can to make sure it doesn't happen again.

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