THE BLOG
02/20/2006 11:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Who Is Really "Weak" On National Security?

Karl Rove has made no secret of his desire to try to ramrod the 2006 elections into a debate over who is "tough" on national security. And it seems more and more Democrats are frightened to actually have the debate. Oh sure, these Democrats wouldn't tell you that - in fact, many are posturing as tough guys even as they cower in fear of Rove. A few weeks back, it was Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN), self-servingly reinforcing Rove's dishonest storyline of Democrats as "afraid" (read: weak) on national security. And now today in the Toledo Blade, it's failed Ohio Senate candidate Paul Hackett's campaign.

Yes, you read that correctly. A week after Hackett got out of the race, Hackett's campaign - now in the process of closing down - leaked all of its "opposition research" on Rep. Sherrod Brown (D) to the Toledo Blade - opposition research that regurgitates the same Karl-Rove-esque "weak on national security" lies that have eroded Democrats' image over the years.

Clearly, the Hackett campaign's move is disgusting on many levels. First and foremost, is the sheer pathetic, sore-loserish quality of it. A week ago, it was Hackett who appeared on Air America radio saying: "I’d rather see Sherrod Brown as my next Senator [than Republican Mike DeWine]…Why do I want to hurt him if we can get him elected...I’m proud to say that I’m a team player...Everybody who is upset about this, get over it now and let’s work hard to get Democrats on the ticket elected." Now, this "team player" is out spreading dishonest GOP propaganda. Classy.

But the shameless disloyalty of Hackett's campaign isn't really what's interesting. The broader attempt by the right to create a storyline about "weakness" and "strength" on national security is. So let's just look at the Toledo Blade story and what it represents at a deeper level. Hackett's campaign tries to attack Brown for voting against the Patriot Act - even though polls show the public has serious reservations about the law, and want it to be changed (see question 19 of this USA Today/CNN poll from last month for reference).

But beyond the hyperbole on the Patriot Act - which lawmakers in both parties have now raised objections to - is the more pressing attack on Brown's votes to slightly reduce spending for intelligence in the 1990s. Like an obedient appendage of Rove's smear machine, Hackett's campaign says the votes essentially mean Brown is "weak" on national security. But let's just think about how truly ridiculous that line of reasoning is. The intelligence bills passed, the funding went through, and we still got hit on 9/11, even though we had overt warnings.

That makes something very clear: our intelligence apparatus in the 1990s was focused on outdated Cold War priorities - not on the new threats to America. Brown's votes were a courageous attempt to force reform - instead of simply throwing more money at an outdated apparatus that ultimately failed us on 9/11 because it hadn't been reformed earlier. If anyone is "weak" on national security, it is the people who blindly voted for these bills - not those who tried to force a debate that may have sharpened our intelligence system's focus on the real threats to America BEFORE they materialized.

Fortunately, the American public - who clearly wants its security protected - seems to innately understand that the national security spending decisions by the establishment need re-focusing. Take a look at the University of Maryland's poll from a year ago:

"A majority rejects the idea that net increases in the defense budget as a whole are necessary to fight terrorism...When presented most of the major items in the discretionary federal budget and given the opportunity to modify it, Americans make some dramatic changes. The largest cut by far is to defense spending, which is reduced by nearly one-third ($133 billion), followed by spending on Iraq and Afghanistan."

In other words, Americans don't buy the Rove-Hackett storyline. They get that the defense/intelligence budget has, for years, been increasingly corrupted by bought-off politicians who have used it to enrich their defense industry campaign contributors. You have to look no further than the shenanigans of Reps. Duke Cunningham (R-CA) or Jerry Lewis (R-CA) on the Defense Appropriations Committee to know why Americans see the truth on this. In fact, it was none other than Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who tacitly acknowledged this reality when he recently advocated for military "transformation" - a program that included major defense spending cuts to outdated weapons systems that contractors were getting fat off of, but that weren't targeted to the War on Terror. And throughout the 1980s it was Dick Cheney who pushed repeatedly to cut defense spending, again citing the wastefulness of outdated programs. These two are clearly "weak" on national security because of their decisions to send us into a war that diverted resources from pursuing the perpetrators of 9/11 - but they are not "weak" on national security because of their previous (and now abandoned) efforts to refocus national security spending.

In a previous post, I wrote about how this country desperately needs to have the debate over national security spending that Brown clearly supported in voting the way he did in the 1990s. As former Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense Larry Korb recently noted:

"Over $40 billion in savings from wasteful Pentagon programs could be achieved quickly – by cutting only the most egregious examples of misplaced priorities. These programs include the F-22 Raptor fighter jet and Virginia Class submarines, designed to achieve superiority over Soviet jets and submarines that were never built; missile defense, proposed when terrorists were not our primary enemy; bases in Asia, Europe and here at home that are irrelevant in today's geopolitical reality."

Sherrod Brown and the courageous lawmakers who voted with him in the 1990s were trying to bring this debate to the forefront. And had they been successful in forcing reform, our defenses against the real terrorist threats may have been stronger when we were ultimately attacked. This is why, instead of running scared from Rove like Evan Bayh, or reinforcing Rove's talking points as Hackett did, Democrats must go right at the Republicans on this issue. They must forcefully remind the public that progressives were trying to reform and refocus national security spending on the real threats to America in the lead up to 9/11, and that they are continuing to try to reform and refocus that spending today.

The public would clearly be receptive to this message. Americans are waiting for party to articulate this reality - they know that our national security resources aren't being spent properly. Whether we are diverting resources from the War on Terror in Iraq, or outsourcing port security to firms owned by countries with connections to terrorists - Americans see what's going on. And they are sick of dishonest opportunists like Rove using the veil of "national security" as a way to perpetuate budget policies that have weakened U.S. national security by blindly handing over billions of dollars to defense contractor campaign donors, regardless of whether those contracts will actually protect America against the threats we now face.