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On the Hill: Plan B

At an early June meeting of Republican activists in California, White House political director Ken Mehlman set the stage for the November congressional elections. Delivering a slick PowerPoint presentation with 27 slides bearing short, declarative sentences and nifty national maps, Mehlman summarized the parties' competing approaches with boardroom efficiency. First he explained the by-now-familiar Democratic strategy: Support George W. Bush on the war, but "Attack on Domestic Agenda--Social Security, Health Care Costs, Environment, Education"; "Use Budget, Tax Cuts, and Enron for Class Warfare"; and "Divide [the] President and Congressional Republicans." Yet Mehlman predicted that the Democrats' strategy would fail. In a slide entitled "Mid-Term Political Landscape: More Favorable to Republicans," he ticked off several bullets points explaining why. "Extremely Popular President" was one; "Recovering Economy" another. But none was more important than this bit of understated corporatese: "Increased Importance of National Security Issues." And so when the slide entitled "Our 2002 Strategy" showed a bright red box with the words "Maintain a Positive Issue Environment," it didn't take a genius to figure out which issue Mehlman and his White House colleagues have in mind: terrorism.

The Bush administration may not be able to control exactly what Americans think about the terrorist threat, but they have enormous power to control whether they think about it. Fear-inspiring TV appearances by the likes of Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General John Ashcroft--as well as national addresses like the one Bush delivered last week--keep the words "Al Qaeda" on the front pages and in our collective anxiety attacks. And with the Democrats stuck in a defensive crouch, terrified of seeming like they are interfering with the war effort, that public attention almost always tilts the "issue environment" the GOP's way.

The congressional debate over Bush's proposed Department of Homeland Security promises more of the same. While some Democrats may nitpick, its approval will probably be an exercise in magnanimous, stately bipartisanship--the sort of thing that makes the David Broders of the world applaud. And since consideration of the proposed department could dominate public discussion virtually until Election Day, Democrats have two--unpalatable--choices. They can try to outdo Bush as homeland defense hawks, or they can keep trying to steer the campaign-trail debate away from the war and toward the "domestic issues" where they may have an edge. The first strategy hasn't worked so far; the second amounts to little more than an unproven hope.

Democrats begin any national security debate at a serious disadvantage. The cold war left their military and foreign policy credibility in shambles, and the Bill Clinton years helped restore it only incrementally. Even though Democrats have been largely in lockstep with the president on the war since September 11, polls continue to show that, unlike him, they've reaped no real benefit. And while a few party leaders such as Senator Joe Lieberman may hope to outflank Bush on the right, mainly on the issue of Iraq, most are too dovish, or too insecure about their flimsy defense credentials, to join in.

The home front, however, has been a different story. Even as Bush has proposed billions in additional homeland security spending, Democrats have consistently outdone him--calling for billions more on everything from bioterror defenses to guarding nuclear material to inspecting cargo ships. For instance, after Bush asked for $4.7 billion in his first post-9/11 "domestic security" request last fall, House and Senate Democrats one-upped him. Proposing an extra $6.4 billion in the House and $7.5 billion in the Senate, they funded such seemingly unimpeachable priorities as an additional $191 million to secure Russian nuclear material; $200 million for bus and rail security; and $20 million for more training in foreign languages like Arabic, Farsi, and Pashto. (Republicans had sought no money for any of these categories.) Democrats also asked for $450 million in added security at U.S. nuclear weapons facilities; the White House and House Republicans ultimately agreed to less than one-third of that amount.

Now the same dynamic is playing out again. Last week the Senate approved an anti-terror spending bill that includes some $4 billion more in funding than the president wants. The White House, eager to look tough on spending to avoid criticism from small-government conservatives (see "Big Deal," by Ryan Lizza, page 10), has threatened a veto if the bill includes the Senate spending. So what exactly has the White House aligned itself against? More than $700 million for added port security and $100 million to fight nuclear proliferation--at a time when The Sum of All Fears, with its nuclear cataclysm in Baltimore Harbor, is the number-one movie in America. Hundreds of millions more would go to increased food safety and federal assessments of watersupply vulnerability. Even as Bush paid a camera-friendly visit to a Kansas City, Missouri, water-treatment facility this week to lend some imagery to his homeland security push, Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd was noting on the Senate floor that the White House has requested no money to secure water systems--despite testimony suggesting local governments need as much as $400 million to address the problem. (The Democratic bill about which Bush has been complaining offers a modest $125 million.) Bush's newfound frugality is especially curious, Democrats note, given that last month he signed a farm bill that increased agricultural subsidies by $70 billion.

Democrats like senator Tom Daschle have tentatively begun pressing this case against the administration. "[I]t seems to me, in light of the heightened tension and the heightened fear that there [is] as a result of these pronouncements, for us to be debating about whether or not we are going to spend additional amounts on homeland defense is, as I say, very troubling," the Democratic leader said last week. On Wednesday Wisconsin Democrat David Obey forced a House funding vote to show, as a press release from his office put it, "that the President's re-organization plan is no substitute for committing serious resources to homeland security." Some Democrats want to press their homeland-defense-hawk image even more aggressively--perhaps by tying Bush's resistance to new spending to the budget shortfalls created by his tax cut. The tax cut now "is a matter of national security," says Obey's spokesman, David Sirota. Bush is "literally choosing tax cuts over homeland security resources."

But for now the White House doesn't seem in danger of losing this fight. Most prominent Democrats still get ulcers when the tax cut comes up, as evidenced by their almost unanimous refusal to back a serious effort to freeze or repeal the Bush plan. And Senate Democrats stupidly allowed several absurd items of pork to creep into their anti-terror bill, including $11 million in assistance to New England fishermen and $26.8 million for a federal urban-mapping project. The White House has gleefully flogged those provisions and watched with delight as pork-buster Senator John McCain broke with his usual Democratic allies to rail against the bill. Several press accounts, in turn, have highlighted the charges of wasteful spending, despite its tiny proportion of the overall package. And so once again Democrats seem bound to earn little credit for their efforts.

So democrats generally agree that their best hope remains the bread-and-butter categories on Mehlman's PowerPoint slides. Which helps explain why House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt is so eager to complete Bush's reorganization of the federal government not by the end of the year but by the symbolic date of September 11: He knows that every day spent talking about where to house the Coast Guard is one less day spent whipping up the Democratic base. Daschle began that effort this week, opening debate on a hate-crimes bill that has no chance of being passed into law this year but that means a lot to gays, lesbians, and African Americans in the party's base. Soon after, House and Senate Democrats finally took up the prescription-drug battle they have long been savoring.

Party optimists claim Democrats can win this fall even if Congress is focused on Bush's new department. Control of the House will likely be decided in rural areas where voters feel less anxiety about, say, dirty bombs than do most urbanites, and where the economy has been slowest to recover. "What the national media are focusing on is not what campaigns are about," says a House Democratic leadership aide. "Prescription drugs doesn't go away because of this. People care about things even when they're not on the front page of The Washington Post." Senate battles, with their broader terrain, are more influenced by national issues. But in a state like Maine, where Republican incumbent Senator Susan Collins is staving off a challenge from Democrat Chellie Pingree, prescription drugs is issue number one. In South Carolina, where Democrat Alex Sanders is trying to overtake Representative Lindsey Graham for Strom Thurmond's seat, a non-war-related brouhaha over federal storage of nuclear waste in the state is a defining issue. And although South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson's patriotism has been shamelessly questioned by his Republican challenger, John Thune, farm spending probably looms larger in that race than does Osama bin Laden. Even Mehlman's presentation acknowledged that "control of Congress will turn on [a] handful of races decided by local issues, candidate quality, money raised, campaign performance, etc." Spoken almost like a hopeful Democrat.

This article originally ran in the June 24, 2002, issue of the magazine.