POLITICS
03/28/2008 02:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Will The GOP Blindside The Democrats On Terror Issues?

While many Democratic strategists are confident that the deteriorating economy virtually assures the victory of their presidential candidate on November 4, there is a quiet debate over whether the party and prospective nominee are likely to get blindsided by Republicans raising issues of terrorism and national security.

Republicans are making no secret of their intentions in the general election.

Karl Rove declared that if either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton is nominated, he or she will be challenged on upcoming Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) legislation: "Do they or do they not want our intelligence officials to be listening in on terrorists' conversations in the Middle East who may ... be plotting to hurt America?"

Alex Castellanos, Republican media strategist, told the Huffington Post that the continuing concerns of American voters about the dangers of another terrorist attack will be the engine behind a Republican victory in November:

"9/11 changed everything," he said. "The president's job is to lock the doors at night and keep America safe from terrorism. We are still in that world in 2008. And that's why a Republican is going to be elected president again in 2008."

Opinion on the likely strength of such Republican challenges to the Democratic nominee varies widely.

At one end of the spectrum, former Senator Gary Hart warns that Democrats are vulnerable and unprepared. "The ghost of Karl Rove will raise the specter of terrorism and swift boat whomever the Democrats nominate. The fear card is the last resort of the collapsing W. coalition," he said.

At the other end, Joseph Cirincione, Senior Fellow and Director for Nuclear Policy at the Center for American Progress, contends the Democrats will offer stronger messaging:

"The Democratic candidate will have a very strong case to make to the American people that the conservative national security policies have failed. We are less secure now than we were in 2000, in 2001 or in 2002. Osama bin Laden is closer today to getting a nuclear weapon or weapon materials than he ever has been. This is the most serious national security threat facing America. The president's policies have increased this threat, not decreased it. I do not believe that the Democratic presidential candidate will have any trouble making that case to the American people."

Similarly, Brookings Institution foreign policy scholar Ivo Daalder argued, "Terror and fear are the only things the Reps can run on -- and so they will. Every Democrat knows that. But the country is clearly hunkering for a leader who can also address their real and current fears, which are economic first and foremost. So the Democrats have to talk about these issues, which surely aren't peripheral to the voters. That doesn't mean that they should not talk about national security -- they should, they do, and they will."

Republican pollster Bill McInturff surprisingly reinforced this view. "Each party's nominee has a lot of latitude to define themselves for the general," he said. "To be fair, as of now, there's not a major candidate who has messed up an issue for the general beyond repair as of today."

The most nuanced analysis of the politics of terror was provided by Brian Katulis, a less well known figure in the Democratic foreign policy establishment who is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress where he is a Senior Advisor to the Center's Middle East Progress project.

"I wouldn't say that Democrats have avoided national security as much as they have not yet developed a coherent narrative that simply goes beyond 'Bush screwed things up.'....Conservatives have an overarching story when it comes to talking about national security - it's not dissimilar to Bush's narrative: there are bad people out there, we need to go out there and try to kill them ourselves before they get us. Simplistic, and applied to many different threats, but it's kind of an easy story line....

"It's those political consulting classes on the Democratic side who are particularly wounded and still operating on the defensive when it comes to national security - which is truly a stunning thing when you think about it, given all of the strategic errors conservatism is responsible for on the national security front the last seven years.

"So I think there's a sweet spot for Democrats to actually say something that connects the dots on the national security and terrorism front - one that actually responds to a need from the American people to hear a viable alternative - but we're just not hearing it yet at that political communications level. We're seeing and hearing tick lists that make the broader public's eyes glaze over. On the conservative side, we hear a story line - a batshit crazy one for the most part that got us in the predicament that we're in now, but hey, it's a story. Most people would rather go to a movie that has a plot."