Nancy Pelosi may be on to something. During her portion of the State of the Union rebuttal (I am one of the unprivileged few who stayed awake through it), Pelosi touched on an issue that could be a winner for the Democratic Party.
After a few minutes of laying out the Democrats' cut-and-run strategy for Iraq, Pelosi said, "Despite the Administration's rhetoric, airline cargo still goes undisputed, shipping containers go unscreened, and our railroads and power plants are not secure." This made me think something I can't ever recall thinking when hearing Pelosi speak: She's absolutely right.
You don't need to be a counter-terrorism expert to realize that the United States' domestic defense is woefully inadequate. Anyone who's been to a U.S. airport in the last three years understands that the security has changed little since September 11. Sure, the banned item list is a bit longer and travelers get a whiff of each other's foot odor when asked to take off their shoes. But no revolutionary changes have taken place.
Even though having an air marshal on every U.S flight would virtually assure that there would be no hijackings, only a small fraction of flights have air marshals onboard.
A major subway fire in New York City last month, which was initially blamed on a vagrant, exposed how ineffective security has been in keeping homeless people out of subway tunnels. If homeless people can freely wander through the city's subway tunnels, how do we expect to control a well-orchestrated terrorist plot against a transportation system that serves millions of people each day?
Examples of holes in our domestic security can fill several volumes, but Democrats have yet to realize that this issue could be their most effective way of opposing President Bush. Democrats must prove to voters that they can be strong on national security, because the issue is going to remain the most important to Americans for the foreseeable future.
John Kerry's failed candidacy demonstrates how difficult it is for Democrats to wage an effective attack on the president's national security record from the foreign policy side.
The base of the party's support came from people who were vehemently opposed to the war in Iraq and generally against the aggressive use of American military power. Moderates may have been skeptical about President Bush's Iraq policy, but they still supported aggressively hunting terrorists. Senator Kerry was criticized for his inconsistency during the election, but it was the dynamics of his party and the need to appeal to both of these groups that spawned his flip-flopping.
With the elections in Iraq largely being viewed as a success, the Democrats' predicament on foreign policy has gotten even worse. Now they must choose between engaging in me-tooism or sounding as if they were raining on Iraq's parade.
That's why seizing on domestic security issues is the only effective option for Democrats. By becoming domestic security hawks, Democrats would prove to swing voters that they are serious about fighting terrorism. Less-partisan conservatives who have been frustrated with President Bush's don't-rock-the-boat approach to the domestic side of national security may even throw their support behind the Democrats' efforts.
Currently, when Democrats condemn President Bush's Iraq policy, it leads to charges that they are being unpatriotic by attacking U.S. policy while troops are in harm's way. This charge could not be made were they to focus on criticizing the president for his domestic polices.
At the same time, the Democratic Party's left wing would not feel alienated by a hawkish approach to domestic security, because proposing increased airport safety or more thorough inspection of shipping containers does not raise the specter of American imperialism.
But for Democrats to succeed they have to move beyond merely attacking President Bush and instead present a comprehensive strategy for overhauling domestic security.
I wouldn't count on it, though. We're more likely to get what Harry Reid would call the Groundhog Day effect. The same ideology over and over again.
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