John McCain and his aides took a fairly sharp jab at Barack Obama on Tuesday, accusing the presumptive Democratic nominee of downplaying the threat of terrorism by viewing it as a criminal activity.
If the attack line strikes political observers as familiar, that's because it is all but lifted from the playbook of George W. Bush.
Late Monday evening and Tuesday morning, the McCain campaign hit Obama for statements he made to ABC News arguing that the United States was able to arrest and put on trial those responsible for the first World Trade Center attack and could do the same for detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Such logic, McCain's aides asserted, demonstrated a "stunning and alarming misunderstanding of the threat we face from radical Islamic extremism." Obama, they concluded, represented "the 9/10 Candidate."
(For full audio of the McCain campaign's Tuesday conference call on the topic: click here)
Put aside, for the time being, whether what Obama said was historical fact (the McCain campaign disputes that, but argued primarily that using the criminal justice system to help combat terrorism was a "policy of delusion"); or that McCain himself advocates closing the prison camp at Guantanamo and moving the detainees to the U.S. mainland; or that the Illinois Democrat never said anything about not using military force (Obama, after all, has advocated going after Bin Laden in Pakistan even without that government's sign-off). And consider how similar McCain's talking points are to those Bush deployed in the run-up to the 2004 election.
In October 2004, Sen. John Kerry, in an 8,000 word article in New York Time Magazine, was quoted saying that the way for the U.S. to feel safe again would be for terrorism to not be "the focus of our lives," but rather a "nuisance."
''As a former law enforcement person," said Kerry. "I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life.''
Bush, predictably, pounced on the remark. The president and his surrogates painted Kerry as dainty and soft on terror - unable to understand that criminal prosecution wouldn't deter al Qaeda. Never mind that, as FactCheck.org documented, Bush too had made a similar remark:
"I don't think you can win [the war on terror]," he said, "but I think you can create conditions so that the--those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world, let's put it that way."
Or that the 9/11 Commission Staff Report had reported that the United States "has long regarded [terrorist] acts as criminal." This practice continues even under Bush; who introduced a plan to "improve national legal and regulatory frameworks to ensure appropriate criminal and civil liability" for nuclear terrorists.
The charge that Kerry fundamentally misunderstood the war on terror was too tempting a political bait.
And so McCain recycled the meme four years later. Arguing that the 1993 prosecutions of the World Trade Center attacks -- in addition to the anti-terrorist policies deployed throughout the Clinton administration -- were ineffectual in impeding the growth of al Qaeda, aides and advisers offered apocalyptic warnings that Obama would return to the same approach.
"If Senator Obama did receive that 3am phone call that was talked about in the primary," declared adviser Randy Scheunemann on a conference call with reporters, "his response would be to call the lawyers in the Justice Department."
Added John Lehman, a member of the 9/11 Commission and an adviser to McCain: "I don't believe that Sen. Obama will not change his positions on this because it is a totally unsupportable position. ... No matter how naïve he is, he would not go forward with it. If he did it would make it far more dangerous for the United States, I believe."
Within hours, the Obama campaign had responded with a conference call of its own. Framing McCain as having fully embraced the policies of George Bush (moreso now because he was mimicking his attack lines), surrogates to the Senator said it was the Republicans, not the Democrats who was out of touch about how to wage the war on terror.
"John McCain exhibited a clear pre-9/11 mentality as opposed to Barack Obama," said Sen. John Kerry. "When Barack Obama suggested that if we had actionable intelligence about Osama bin Laden's presence in Pakistan we would act on that and take him out. John McCain criticized that... John McCain defended Pakistani sovereignty and actually criticized him for doing that. In fact, it was BO who had the more proactive commitment to use the military and John McCain who defended a more legalistic approach."