05 Dec 2008

Two Words Democrats Fear

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Peggy Noonan describes conversation at a mostly Republican Christmas gathering in Occupied Virginia within the Beltway:

There was no grousing about John McCain, and considerable grousing about the Bush administration, but it was almost always followed by one sentence, and this is more or less what it was: “But he kept us safe.” In the seven years since 9/11, there were no further attacks on American soil. This is an argument that’s been around for a while but is newly re-emerging as the final argument for Mr. Bush: the one big thing he had to do after 9/11, the single thing he absolutely had to do, was keep it from happening again. And so far he has. It is unknown, and perhaps can’t be known, whether this was fully due to the government’s efforts, or the luck of the draw, or a combination of luck and effort. And it not only can’t be fully known by the public, it can hardly be fully known by the players at all levels of government. They can’t know, for instance, of a potential terrorist cell that didn’t come together because of their efforts.

But the meme will likely linger. There’s a rough justice with the American people. If a president presides over prosperity, whether he had anything to do with it or not, he gets the credit. If he has a recession, he gets the blame. The same with war, and terrorist attacks. We have not been attacked since 9/11. Someone—someones—did something right.

But here is a jittery reality: We are living through the time of two presidents. Or, if you choose to see it that way, the time of no president, with one on his way in but not arrived, and the other on his way out and without full authority. Histories will be written about this moment, and about the administration’s work with the president-elect’s office. But it is jittery because criminals calculate, they look for opportunities and vulnerabilities. This is a delicate time, with a transition of power, a profound economic crisis, and a nation feeling demoralized around the edges.

We received a reminder of the gravity of the situation this week, with the bipartisan congressional report saying the odds are high the world will see a biological or nuclear terror attack in the next five years. It said, “America’s margin of safety is shrinking, not growing,” and “the risk that radical Islamists—al Qaeda or Taliban—may gain access to nuclear material is real.”

Commission co-chairman Bob Graham, a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and an adviser to Mr. Obama’s transition team, was sober in a Q&A with Newsweek. He said he was most surprised at the risk of biological weapons because of “the ubiquitous nature of pathogens”—anthrax, or a resurrected infectious agent such as the one that produced the 1918 influenza epidemic, which has been re-created in the laboratory.

The report hasn’t received the attention it deserves, nor have its recommendations. Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat, accused the commission of playing the “fear card” and trying to imitate the Bush administration in alarmism and bellicosity. Mr. Graham, a Florida Democrat and former senator, would have none of it. “Our adversaries are gaining greater capabilities,” he said.

Why does Congress prepare such reports? To inform, and to win support for new plans. To show they are doing something. And to be able to say, in the event of calamity—forgive my cynicism—that they warned us. This hasn’t been the first such report. It won’t be the last. But it comes at a key moment for Mr. Obama, because it gives him a certain amount of cover to be serious about what needs to be done. What’s at stake for him is two words. When Republicans say, in coming years, “At least Bush kept us safe,” Democrats will not want tacked onto the end of that sentence, “unlike Obama.”

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