Democrats get bolder in criticisms of Bush

In timing of terror alert, the party is more willing to question the president

August 08, 2004|By Andrew Zajac and John McCormick | Andrew Zajac and John McCormick,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - In the week after the Bush administration issued its most detailed warning yet about a potential terrorist attack, Democrats have signaled a greater willingness to challenge the president, at least delicately, on his handling of homeland security.

The latest elevated alert - specifically for financial buildings in the New York area and Washington - was issued just three days after the Democratic National Convention, as Sen. John Kerry was hoping to bask in the headlines from his nomination.

The timing provided fuel for skeptics who have suggested that Bush has used homeland security announcements to change the nation's conversation during times of unsettling news for his administration.

Such criticism prompted Bush on Friday to deny playing politics with the terrorism issue as he disputed Democratic second-guessing.

"We have the solemn duty to follow every lead we find and share information we have with people that could be harmed," Bush said at a conference of minority journalists in Washington. "That's exactly what we've done."

By week's end, Democrats, including Kerry, had grown bolder in questioning the president's conduct of homeland security.

But it is apparent that they must do so carefully, for fear that any challenge of a safety provision could have a disastrous backlash if a terrorist attack occurs.

Before the latest warning, the national threat level was most recently raised in December, as Bush was being hammered by negative Iraq headlines and a flock of Democratic primary candidates were challenging his leadership over the occupation.

Although Democrats have suggested that the president gets a political boost from heightened threat levels, the reality is that the act of raising the alert has had no measurable influence on the president's job approval ratings.

With just one exception, Bush's ratings have been virtually unchanged after the six instances when the administration has raised the terrorism alert level. That one exception coincided with increased ratings Bush received as Americans rallied around him at the start of the Iraq war.

But after the recent release of a scathing report - one that was critical of the Clinton and Bush administrations - by a bipartisan commission that studied the events leading up to Sept. 11 hijackings, Democrats appear more willing to confront aspects of the president's terrorism policy. Indeed, at week's end Kerry, who highlighted his war service and focused on national security at the convention in Boston, had narrowed the gap with Bush in the arena of protecting the country, according to an Associated Press poll that shows the race remains close.

In the AP survey conducted Tuesday through Thursday, 43 percent of the respondents said Kerry would do a better job of protecting the country - a gain of 8 percentage points from a similar survey in March.

Although his campaign was careful earlier in the week not to criticize the timing of the heightened alert, Kerry later subtly questioned Bush's decision-making on the terrorism warning.

"The way you make us safe and win the war on terror is not by announcing these color-coded threats, but by bringing countries to our side and having the best intelligence operation in the world," he said in an interview last week with National Public Radio.

Kerry answered affirmatively when asked if he would have handled the latest alert differently and whether he would eliminate the color-coded system.

"I would find a way to change, yes," he said. "You have to let Americans know of a legitimate threat. But I think that most Americans don't really know how to respond or what it means or what the difference between one color or another is."

Accusations of politicking with the terrorist warnings are emblematic of a particularly partisan period in American politics, said Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist and a skeptic about suggestions that the Aug. 1 announcement was made to dim the glow of Kerry's nomination.

"The big story was the absence of the Kerry bounce," said Feaver, who studies the politics of national security. "If I was a Republican, I would want all the headlines to continue to focus on that."

Under ordinary circumstances, it might be unseemly to question presidential motives in deciding when to declare alerts.

But two events have created an opening for Democrats to question whether Bush is playing it straight on the terrorism warnings.

The first came from Bush's political guru Karl Rove, who framed the war on terrorism as an issue to be capitalized on politically. "Americans trust the Republicans to do a better job of keeping our communities and our families safe," Rove said in 2002 speech.

The second is a credibility gap connected to the inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

"It speaks volumes about this president's credibility or lack thereof that [the timing of alerts] is even a debate," said Jano Cabrera of the Democratic National Committee.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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