Republicans struggling with insecurity
George Tenet’s resignation has added to a growing feeling that the US may be safer with a Democrat in the White House, says Philip James.
Friday June 4, 2004
The US public can tell when something is up, and sometimes they nail it before the pundits do.
Forty-five minutes after George Tenet resigned as the head of the CIA, the Washington Post began a live chat with its internet readers.
This was the first contribution, sent in from Raleigh, North Carolina: “To us out here in flyover country, the resignation of Tenet at this time comes as a total shock.
“I mean, at this point in the election cycle, that means the CIA is gonna be leaderless until next year. Am I right about that – that it’s impractical to think that a full-time director can be vetted, announced, and confirmed (not to mention the pointlessness of the whole exercise given that Kerry may win and would want to pick his own man)?”
The Post’s associate editor, Robert Kaiser, replied: “There is no shock here that Tenet is out.” Flyover country 1, inside the beltway punditry 0. The timing of Tenet’s departure is stunning. There is no way it does anything other than wound George Bush, adding to the growing perception that this president and his administration are dangerously incompetent.
Whether it later emerges that Mr Tenet was pushed because of the hopelessly flawed evidence he presented as fact to justify the war in Iraq, because his agency failed to connect the dots signalling the September 11 2001attacks, or because someone in his office leaked the name of an undercover CIA operative to the press does not matter.
To the outside world, it is looking more and more as though Mr Bush cannot keep his house in order. What is more, his national security credentials – which he was hoping would safeguard his re-election – look increasingly shaky.
John Kerry now has the chance to press home a theme he has carefully exploited over the last few days. It is one going against conventional political wisdom: that the US is safer with a Democrat in office than a Republican.
For the better part of three decades, and certainly from the Carter presidency to the present day, the operating assumption has been that Republicans are strong on defence, Democrats not so much.
However, a poorly-prosecuted and unnecessary war, Mr Tenet’s resignation and what promises to be a long, hot summer of revelations about just how badly this administration has mismanaged the nation’s intelligence apparatus threaten to alter the equation.
Mr Kerry may be able to flip the “strong on defence” stereotype and fully reclaim it for the Democrats for the first time since the Truman era.
He began the assault last week with his Iraq speech, in which he laid out the case that this administration’s arrogance and blunders have put US citizens at risk.
Since then, he has opened up a line of attack on territory that should be Republican-owned. He announced that, as president, he would speed up the programme to secure “loose nukes” four- fold, suggesting that the Bush administration had dropped the ball and let the timeline slide.
This clearly got the attention of the Bush/Cheney rapid response team. Georgia’s Senator, Saxby Chambliss, was dispatched, via conference call, to put the media straight. “The number one goal, frankly, is to eliminate the terrorists,” he barked. “Weapons of mass destruction mean nothing without the terrorists.”
Now, maybe Mr Chambliss got the wrong talking points – but I thought the whole reason for the war in Iraq in the first place was to lock down WMD.
His argument displayed the dumb logic of the National Rifle Association’s mantra: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” I hope we are not to expect that the Republican National Committee now wants to protect the people’s right to carry WMD.
Republican party bigwigs are nervous, and their famous message discipline is slipping. As Mr Kerry takes the fight right into their back yard and they appear – heaven forbid – to be weak on defence, Republicans are taking on other traditionally Democratic characteristics.
Their ranks are appearing fractious and divisive, and there is backbiting – all areas in which Democrats used to excel. Not so in this election cycle. Ideological differences between the moderate and liberal wings of the party – a problem that has sunk many a candidate in elections past – are invisible this time around. The left has muted itself in the service of party unity and the goal of beating Bush.
That’s another admirable quality the Democrats seem to have stolen back from Republicans – a ferocious desire to win.
· Philip James is a former senior Democratic party strategist