In a recent speech at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Senator Hillary Clinton said that the Bush administration was failing to make the nation safe, linking the President’s efforts to cut taxes with what she described as a neglect of homeland security. Speaking to reporters on Jan. 28, shortly before the State of the Union address, she reiterated the theme: “Our priorities must be national security, homeland security and economic security, and on those three measures the proposals that the President has made … are not going to work,” she said. “It worries me that we’re not setting our priorities to deal with the most important issues facing the country now.”
By explicitly tying the war on terror to the economy, Mrs. Clinton is unveiling what will be part of a new Democratic strategy to challenge the President on homeland security, an area which is considered one of his greatest political strengths. And by making the highly charged suggestion that the Bush administration is sacrificing public safety for tax breaks-and because of the very fact that Mrs. Clinton is delivering the message-the Democrats are adopting their most confrontational posture since Sept. 11, 2001.
Mrs. Clinton is on the forefront of a Democratic effort to break the monopoly on homeland security currently held by Mr. Bush and the Republican Party, which profited enormously in the midterm elections from a perception among voters that they were more concerned with public safety than the Democrats. To that end, Mrs. Clinton’s criticisms came just days, even hours, before the State of the Union address, dovetailing with pre-emptive rhetorical assaults from Democratic leaders Tom Daschle and Nancy Pelosi, among others. They also came at a time when polls show that voters have more doubts about the President’s leadership on this issue than at any time since the attacks.
Asked about the timing of her comments, Mrs. Clinton said, “I’m more interested in the substance than the politics. I’m looking for what works, and what will make a difference. I don’t care whose idea it is, if it’s a good idea. I just want to get some discussion and debate going on in the Congress and in the country over what should be our priorities and how we can best achieve them.”
She certainly got the debate going. During the speech at Manhattan’s John Jay, which was delivered to a crowd of security experts and law-enforcement officials, Mrs. Clinton didn’t refer to the President by name, or to the Republican Party. But the message wasn’t hard to decipher: The President was misleading the country about the state of its security-she called his homeland-security plan a “myth”-and he was short-changing local police and firefighters for the sake of tax cuts for the wealthy. The reaction from the crowd was polite applause. The reaction from Republicans in Congress, by contrast, was outrage.
“I’m astounded by Mrs. Clinton’s commentary,” upstate New York Representative John Sweeney, a Bush ally, told The Observer. “It’s so transparent that it’s part of an overall political strategy in terms of the Democratic national party and specifically Mrs. Clinton. It’s the worst form of reflexive cynicism that the American public isn’t going to buy. I’m also stunned that it was Hillary Clinton who delivered that first salvo, since she’s so intrinsically tied to the policies that preceded the attacks of Sept. 11.”
Even the affable Long Island Congressman Peter King, who has been personally friendly with the Clintons, attacked, telling reporters after her John Jay speech that by questioning America’s security, Mrs. Clinton was practically inviting another terrorist attack.
Mrs. Clinton’s aides say that her criticisms, along with a legislative proposal she is calling the Providing for the Common Defense Act, were a reaction to initial reports of the Bush budget, which included a proposal for the elimination of a tax on stock dividends, but excluded much of the block grants that Mrs. Clinton, Senator Charles Schumer and the New York delegation in the House had been pleading for to help localities pay for enhanced security. The money was to have been earmarked for things like new security staff at ports and airports, equipment upgrades for firefighters and police, and health care for some of the first responders still ill from their work on the ruins of the World Trade Center.
The Right Moment?
Some Democratic strategists feel that the moment is right to call attention to the issue.
“I think that Democrats are now realizing the Teflon is off Bush, that 9/11 was a long time ago and they haven’t seen much progress on homeland security,” said Democratic political strategist Bill Lynch. “Now people are ready to listen to the argument that the conservative ideology that went into these humongous tax cuts is linked with the lack of money in the budget for homeland security. Those two issues-the economy and homeland security-are what people are most concerned about right now.”
By going after the President on the broad substance of his homeland-security effort, Mrs. Clinton is also following advice from one of the most astute political minds in recent history: former President Bill Clinton. In December, following the Democrats’ disastrous showing in the midterm elections, Mr. Clinton said that the party was “missing in action on national security” and could reverse its fortunes only if the Democrats challenged Mr. Bush directly on the issue.
“The Clintons have both been talking about this for a long time,” said consultant Richard Schrader. “They’re both so seasoned after spending eight years in the White House, going through foreign-policy crises together. Now Hillary is out in front on this issue, and she’s taking it on by addressing very real voter anxieties.”
There is, of course, a risk in addressing people’s worst fears. Attacking the President on security issues in wartime, no matter what the argument, invites accusations of everything from tastelessness to treason. And that, even the most hardened Democrats concede, could make for some rough going over the foreseeable future.
“There’s definitely going to be some pushback on this,” said Mr. Lynch. “It’s going to be, ‘You’re unpatriotic. You’re anti-American. How can you attack the President on an issue like this?’ The Democrats are just going to have to stay out there with this issue.”
However intense the criticism gets, there will be many more serious obstacles for Democrats trying to make an impact in the debate over national security. They are, of course, the minority party in the House and the Senate after their defeat in the last election. And as is the natural dynamic in Washington, their attempts to broadcast a coherent message are drowned out on a daily basis by whatever comes out of the White House.
They will also be battling a generation-old perception that they are weaker on issues of national defense. And the relatively complicated Democratic arguments about domestic issues can easily be overshadowed by whatever happens in Iraq.
Recently, Gary Hart-the former Democratic Senator who is considering a run for President-voiced his own broad criticism of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war on terror. In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, he said that the administration had failed to inform the public of the potential dangers of a war in Iraq, raising the gruesome spectre-if all does not go well-of massive casualties abroad and a rash of terrorist incidents at home. He said he hoped that these scenarios were wrong. Then he added, “If, as I think the White House hopes, the [Iraqi] Republican Guard lays down its arms, women and children rush from their houses and embrace American soldiers, it’s all over in 72 hours, casualties are [minimal], I think probably all Democrats should just go home and not run in 2004.”
The audience laughed. Mr. Hart didn’t.