President Bush is playing the terror card again, but this time it's hurting Republicans.
The debate over domestic spying, the most active counterterrorism battle in the 110th Congress, began like every other security fight in the Bush era. First, both parties say they support the core objective: preventing terrorism, for example, or deploying effective surveillance. Then Republicans declare that only their approach can work, while the Democrats' alternative would endanger America. Cue the attack ads and fear-mongering press conferences, and soon the Democrats cave.
That is the story line for four of the administration's signature security laws: the Homeland Security Department, the Detainee Treatment Act, the Military Commissions Act and the Protect America Act. Yet those tactics have failed to cow Democrats in the current standoff over domestic spying.
Despite attack ads, irresponsible rhetoric from the administration and a veto threat for any spying bills that do not include retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that allegedly broke intelligence law, House Democrats are standing strong. If anything, the GOP terror card is boomeranging.
A conservative group run by Cliff May, a former RNC official, recently launched a $3 million advertising campaign to hit 16 Democratic members of Congress on spying. And the message is classic terror card: lies and fear mongering.
First, the group's ad falsely claims that the immunity stalemate prevented the U.S. from "intercept[ing] Al Qaeda communications." In fact, surveillance continues today, separate from the immunity debate. The 30-second ad crammed in "several misleading claims," according to the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Then, true to form, the overwrought ad features a dramatic cameo from Osama bin Laden. Apparently the only Republicans capable of finding bin Laden are casting agents.
The attacks not only failed to pass the bill, however, they may have also backfired. The terror card angered conservative Democrats who were backing Bush's spying agenda. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), a mild-mannered supporter of Bush's immunity provision, responded to Republican scare tactics by accusing the administration of "political terrorism."
For uncommitted Democrats, the premature attacks served to calcify their backbones. It was another reminder that their security credentials will be smeared no matter how they vote -- or even before they've made up their mind.
The Democrats who led the fight, of course, benefited from an (incremental) victory. As Politico reported last week, progressive Democrats "stared down the president on a key national security issue and enjoyed a week of largely positive headlines."
And out on the campaign trail, some Democratic congressional candidates are leading with their opposition to telecom immunity. Take the newest Democratic member of the House, Bill Foster, who just won the special election for former Speaker Dennis Hastert's seat in Illinois. Foster, a first-time candidate, campaigned against immunity, using the issue as an example of the administration's corrupt security policy.
"The president and his allies in Congress are playing politics with national security, and that's wrong," he told the blog OpenLeft in February. "Nobody is above the law, and telecom companies who engaged in illegal surveillance should be held accountable, not given retroactive immunity." Foster carried the red district by 6 points. (Bush won it by 10 points in 2004.)
In New Mexico's 1st District, which went Republican by half a point last cycle, Democratic candidate Martin Heinrich seized on the immunity issue. He cut a Web ad discussing how his grandparents' flight from European fascism informs his focus on defending civil liberties during war. "The telecom amnesty provision in the FISA legislation currently before Congress threatens those liberties we all hold so dear," the candidate said. "If the Senate FISA bill passes, illegal spying programs will never be investigated and lawbreakers will never be prosecuted."
His Republican opponent, Darren White, responded by accusing Heinrich of exploiting the surveillance debate to "score political points." But it's telling that a Republican candidate is the one complaining about politicizing security issues. Right or wrong, White is already conceding that fighting immunity can be a strong political position for Democrats.
Finally, as both sides aver, this battle is ultimately bigger than the politics of telecom immunity.
Substantively, it is a test of how our society responds to terrorism. Will we maintain accountability, oversight and the rule of law while aggressively pursuing terrorists, or will we allow incumbent politicians to trade away our rights to increase their own power?
Procedurally, it is a contest over whether security imperatives can still pre-empt public debates -- with veto threats cast as ticking time bombs -- or if the electorate will reward strong leadership that rebuffs false choices in favor of a more cogent and sustainable counterterrorism policy.