The challenge of terrorism favors the Republican Party


"[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."

Faced with the chaotic uncertainty of post-Sept.11 politics, some Democrats have come up with acrobatic positions to simultaneously move in opposite directions. Rep. Charles Rangel, for example, voted against the joint resolution authorizing war in Iraq, but then proposed reinstating a universal military draft. (It is not clear precisely how his draftees might be occupied.) California's Sen. Barbara Boxer, one of the most vocal opponents of the SDI missile defense proposal (she called it President Reagan's "astrological dream"), now contends that every commercial airliner should have its own missile defense system.

But while political straddles may proliferate, they are ultimately unlikely to succeed, because the traditional Democratic positions, especially on civil liberties and privacy issues, reflect the views of core Democratic constituencies (such as organized labor, on the Cleland vote). And incumbents who vote contrary to the beliefs of their core constituencies can expect serious primary challenges in the next election cycle.

In addition to the unexpected 2002 election returns, there's another clear indicator, from an unlikely source -- the American Civil Liberties Union -- of the continuing political sea change. The ACLU recently hired hard-right, Clinton-bashing former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr to assist on "privacy, surveillance and national security issues," and former GOP House majority leader Dick Armey to work on "privacy rights."

The ACLU explanation for these hires (which undoubtedly spoiled more than a few wine-and-cheese parties), was a cold dose of realpolitik: "The ACLU has no permanent friends and no permanent allies, just permanent values." (In his final term, Armey scored an anemic 7 percent on the 15 votes the ACLU deemed crucial, which would suggest that the ACLU also has no permanent enemies.) Both hires, however, make perfect sense given the post-Sept. 11 domestic political realities. Conservative Republicans can advocate ACLU privacy issues with none of the political risk that would threaten liberal Democrats.

The ultimate post-Sept. 11 domestic political issue, of course, is who, if anyone, is to blame for not preventing the attacks.

Not us, Clinton's two top counter-terrorism officials argue in The Age of Sacred Terror ( by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, Random House, 490 pages, $25.95). Their account details endless anti-terror meetings, briefing papers, budget increases and Clinton speech rhetoric, all perfect weapons for a paper war on terror. More startling, the authors also reveal that Clinton actually wanted a real war on terror in Afghanistan but conclude that the Pentagon, "having eyed up Clinton and decided he didn't have the guts to fight a war," refused to go along.

On the explosive charge that the Clinton administration actually declined a Sudanese offer to turn over Osama bin Laden to the United States, the authors hedge, saying that that report "should be viewed with great skepticism." They acknowledge, however, that the administration did not want custody of bin Laden, because he "had not yet been indicted." In sum, this is an unintentionally revealing account of inaction, ineptitude and, ultimately, impotence in the face of escalating terrorist violence.

Finally, in The War Against the Terror Masters (St. Martin's Press, 288 pages, $24.95), Michael A. Ledeen contends that Iran is "the driving force behind international terrorism," and that the unraveling of the Islamic Republic there, potentially comparable to the fall of the Soviet Union, is already underway. More optimistic than the other authors, Ledeen contends that societies have generally defeated terror efforts in this century by restricting civil liberties, increasing police powers and expanding surveillance.

Or, as noted civil libertarian Dershowitz put it: "Cage them or kill them."

David W. Marston is author of Malice Aforethought, an analysis of abuses in law practice, and co-author of Inside Hoover's FBI, with Neil J. Welch. U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania from 1976 to 1978, Marston is now a lawyer in civil practice. .

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