Homeland security a back burner issue in 2004

In the final Democratic presidential primary debate of the year, Sen. John Edwards did something bold. Asked about his proposed time frame for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, he launched into a lecture on homeland security. The North Carolinian took on President Bush's policies for protecting Americans at home: beefing up port security and nuclear plant security, for example, and confronting terrorist cells here. Then he offered a plan: "We need to go after these terrorist cells and have human penetration of them."

What happened next? Not much. The debate shifted back to Iraq. In fact, Iraq dominated the discussion to such a degree that even the Democratic front-runner and leading critic of Bush's Iraq policy, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, complained of an excessive fixation on the issue. So he riffed on the rising cost of college tuition.

Homeland security may have dominated the 2002 midterm elections, but it is AWOL in the battle to win the hearts and minds of voters in Campaign 2004. Democrats are using the security issue only as part of a broad critique of Bush -- that he's a reckless leader who can't be trusted to protect the country -- or as a defensive maneuver against what they believe to be assaults on their patriotism. "I don't think homeland security is really an issue in the election," says Jeremy Rosner with the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.

Certainly much has happened since the 2002 elections, most notably, the Bush administration's decision to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Homeland-security issues, in voters' minds, have been folded into the larger war on terrorism. Still, the recent capture of Saddam Hussein has boosted Bush in the polls and reduced the value of Iraq as a Democratic issue. And in the first presidential election since the September 11 attacks, pollsters and political observers are surprised by the Democrats' apparent lack of interest in homeland security. An unrealized, high-value target, homeland security potentially offers a way for Democrats, who are still trailing Bush on security issues by at least 16 percentage points in the polls, to close that gap and connect with voters on an emotional level. Moreover, the security issue plays to their natural domestic policy strengths.

"It does seem a bit surprising that [homeland security] hasn't emerged as an issue," says Carroll Doherty, editor for the Pew Research Center. "That would be a logical issue for the Democrats to raise." Even if polls show terrorism fading from the public consciousness, Doherty says, "I still think it's a very important issue. It's the fundamental dynamic now." Former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, a Democrat who headed the Hart-Rudman Commission on terrorism, describes the lack of debate more bluntly: "It's crazy. This is about life and death."

Meanwhile, Republicans are salivating. "Our plan is viewed positively, largely because they have no plan of their own," says Republican pollster David Winston. The absence of a homeland-security plan tarnishes the Democrats' overall public standing on security, he says, perhaps previewing an upcoming Republican campaign strategy. "The way they haven't engaged on this issue has reinforced in the public's mind that they don't understand the issue at all," he says. Winston's polls show that, by a difference of 55 percent to 31 percent, voters have more confidence in Republicans than in Democrats when it comes to homeland security.

Is homeland security a politically important issue? Look no further than the Republican National Convention planned for September 2004 in New York City, home of Ground Zero. "If I were a Republican, I would want the public to be scared into November, in order to focus the public on homeland security," says one former aide to President Clinton.

Behind the scenes, former Homeland Security Department aides have migrated to the offices of Bush political guru Karl Rove and first lady Laura Bush. Administration officials say privately that they see great potential in Mrs. Bush as a persuasive public face for security at home. She is a logical choice to appeal to the soccer moms who have morphed into "security moms" -- a group that both Doherty and Winston say is real. These security-focused moms make up between 11 percent and 14 percent of the electorate, Winston says, and they're up for grabs.

Politically, however, Democrats haven't figured out how to capitalize on homeland security. They aren't proposing much that's markedly different from what Bush is already trying to do -- whether it's dealing with first responders or port security. And the plans are scattered, which makes them difficult to articulate on the campaign trail. In fact, the most frequently discussed domestic security issue in the campaign is -- Attorney General John Ashcroft. A frequent refrain of every Democratic candidate is his or her innovative plan to fire Ashcroft.

Recently, three candidates, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, Dean, and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, have seized on the war on terror as a new way to indict Bush for his actions in Iraq. They propose an alternative course, based on international cooperation. But some Democrats worry that that type of rhetoric doesn't connect with security concerns at home. "That just doesn't sell in Peoria. What people care about in Peoria is, are my kids safe, are they getting an education, and do I have a job?" said David Heyman, a homeland-security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who worked at the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Clinton. "They are missing an opportunity."

Learning From 2002

In 2002, homeland-security issues helped fell at least two Democratic senators -- Max Cleland of Georgia and Jean Carnahan of Missouri. Their opponents, aided by a forceful hand from President Bush, painted them as soft on security because they opposed Bush's Homeland Security Department proposal. A television ad against Cleland likened him to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Cleland called the ad character assassination. Cleland lost.

For politicians, the big homeland-security lesson from 2002 is: Have an alternative plan. Cleland responded to Republicans' negative onslaught by denouncing their charges that he was unpatriotic -- but he didn't explain his own plan for homeland security. "The problem in 2002 was, [Democrats] had half an argument," said pollster John Zogby. "Are you better off now than you were two years ago? The answer was no. But they couldn't come up with anything better."

What's odd about the Democrats' inability to articulate their plan for homeland security in 2002 is that the Democratic Party has served as Bush's homeland-security brain trust. Clinton established the first National Infrastructure Protection Center. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., wrote the first bill to establish a homeland-security department. Then after the anthrax attacks, Lieberman sponsored a bioterrorism bill aimed at creating incentives for the private sector to develop vaccines. Bush stole both ideas. The first became Bush's proposal for the Department of Homeland Security, and the second became his Project BioShield. They are Bush's only two big homeland-security initiatives to date.

But in 2002, Lieberman, who was then contemplating a presidential bid, helped sink the Democrats' prospects for capturing the homeland-security issue. He led the charge against the White House's efforts to pare back civil service protections in the Homeland Security Department, stalling the measure through the election. He held press conference after press conference with Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and other colleagues. The events featured New York firefighters displaying charred firefighter helmets from the World Trade Center -- never mind that the civil service protections in the bill would have no impact on firefighters in New York.

Meanwhile, off the campaign trail, the White House homeland-security operation continued to sell the country on the department. Heading the effort was Susan Neely, creator of the "Harry and Louise" commercial that helped kill President Clinton's health care proposal. The Bush administration's message was that the department would make Americans safer. Neely, now assistant secretary for public affairs at the Homeland Security Department, called the 2002 election "a clear example that we were successful in communicating that."

The White House's ability to steal Democratic ideas and then use them to club their opponents has even earned some grudging respect among Democrats. "These guys are good," said Democratic strategist Dane Strother. "They've made it pretty difficult for the Democrats to make homeland security our issue -- to put our hands around it."

And there's already a faint sense that history has begun to repeat itself. The Republican National Committee launched an ad last month featuring the message: "Some are now attacking the president for attacking terrorists." The Democratic National Committee countered with an anti-Bush ad. Democratic candidates railed against the RNC ad, calling it "morally reprehensible" and an effort to "distract Americans" from Bush's foreign-policy failures. Dean launched a campaign on his Web site with the goal of raising "$5,000 for every hour they are going to lie to the American people with their ad."

On Security

A couple of weeks after the RNC ad debuted, Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., traveled to a police station in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to announce his homeland-security plan. He pledged to put $20 billion a year for the next five years into a Homeland Security Trust Fund. That money would be dedicated to first responders, with $2 billion each year devoted to hiring and training. In his speech, Gephardt went into great detail on Bush's shortcomings on homeland security. "The failures of this administration are the road map for my proposed solutions," he said.

To be sure, the Bush administration has yet to address some major gaps in the homeland arena. Gephardt named several unmet needs: Establish a terrorist watch list; beef up the information-analysis wing of the Homeland Security Department; secure chemical plants; and manage the Transportation Security Administration. But when asked for the details of Gephardt's road map, his aides had little to offer. How would this $100 billion homeland-security fund be spent? "He doesn't say what they have to spend the money on, but it is specifically for states and local communities," said spokeswoman Kim Molstre, though she added that Gephardt would also establish a terrorist watch list. How did he come to the $100 billion figure? No response.

While Democrats are quick to use domestic-security issues to critique Bush -- challenging his leadership, his trustworthiness, his relationships with Big Business interests -- the alternatives they offer are quite thin. And where their plans overlap with Bush's, it's not clear what would make their efforts fare better than his. In a recent Pew poll, 68 percent of Democrats were undecided on which Democratic candidate is best equipped to handle terrorism. Among those who have decided, Clark leads the pack nationally in terms of whom voters trust to fight terrorism, followed by Kerry, Lieberman, and Dean.

Among the candidates, Edwards stands out for his plan to create a domestic intelligence agency, within the Department of Homeland Security, whose director would be a member of the nation's larger intelligence community. He would start by staffing the agency with FBI agents but would also add analysts with outside experience. "The agency wouldn't have new powers, and there would be a variety of new constraints," said one Edwards aide, such as requiring the agents of this agency to "get clearance" before engaging in surveillance of religious or political activity. (Under Ashcroft, the FBI is now allowed to attend any meetings open to the public, including religious services.)

Lieberman accuses Bush of being too slow and too stingy, but he does not offer a plan that is fundamentally different from what Bush is trying to do -- probably because Bush has already cribbed most of Lieberman's homeland-security ideas. One of Lieberman's new ideas is to establish a National Homeland Security Academy, which he calls a "West Point for domestic defense." He would also train and equip first responders, buy them better communications systems, and give state and local law enforcement officials access to terrorist watch lists. He would boost funding for port security and border security, and he'd call on the National Guard to step up its homeland-security contributions.

Kerry's plan features many of the same components as Lieberman's. One unique element is a proposal that would gather patient data nationwide to identify emerging bioterror threats. Kerry would also establish standards for port security. He'd establish an "independent intelligence capability" for domestic intelligence.

Like Gephardt, both Clark and Dean focus on funding issues. Clark would establish a $40 billion two-year Homeland and Economic Security Fund that would pay for such things as equipping first responders, protecting chemical and other toxic facilities, securing research facilities, and bolstering the Coast Guard. But like Gephardt's aides, Clark's campaign couldn't explain how he came up with his dollar figure or specifically how he would spend the money. Taking on the USA PATRIOT Act, which expanded government surveillance powers, Clark would re-examine the provisions that allow searches of library records and searches of a terror suspect's home without his knowledge.

Dean, similarly, proposes to create a Homeland Defense Trust Fund, of an undetermined amount, which he would fund with part of the windfall from reversing Bush's tax cuts. He describes his plan as one of concentric circles, which bear the same labels as the Homeland Security Department's themes: response, protection, and prevention. To bolster response, Dean would spend $5 billion on first-responder needs, such as equipment and training. For protection, he would offer "adequate funding" for more technology and people at our borders. Dean's prevention plan ties homeland security to operations abroad through stronger intelligence, police, and military efforts -- built on cooperation with other countries. On civil liberties, he would "seek to repeal the portions of the PATRIOT Act that are unconstitutional," and allow other controversial elements of the act to sunset.

This idea of connecting foreign policy with terrorism and security is the Democrats' Next Big Thing. If there's a convergence of ideas among the Democratic candidates, it's that any plan for going forward will require international cooperation on terrorism. Dean outlined his vision for a "new anti-terrorist alliance" in a December 15 speech heavy on multilateralism but light on detail. He did offer one specific proposal: a $30 billion program to curb the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

After Dean's speech, adviser Franklin Kramer, a former assistant secretary for Defense under President Clinton, said Dean wants "a more comprehensive security approach" that merges domestic and international security. Domestically, Kramer said, the National Guard would be the "backbone" coordinator among federal, state, and local entities, especially on intelligence. Asked for details to distinguish Dean's approach from Bush's, he acknowledged, "We don't have specific proposals here."

While all the leading Democrats have begun to touch on this theme, perhaps the most extensive plan so far has come from Kerry, who in a December 3 speech criticized Bush for making the world less safe by failing to establish security in Iraq. Kerry laid out his vision for fighting the international war on terrorism. He would carry a message of multilateralism to heads of state around the world; persuade the United Nations to take on a major role in Iraq; reduce drug trafficking in Afghanistan; improve relations with Iran; adopt a tough-love policy with Saudi Arabia; enlist all countries in the fight against terrorist funding; and engage in the Middle East peace process. "To succeed at home, we must succeed abroad," he said.

Why haven't Democrats focused on homeland security? "The Bush administration has ignored it," Dean adviser Kramer said. Still, a Kerry aide acknowledged that all of the Democratic candidates should put greater focus on strengthening homeland security. "I wish all the candidates would speak about it more," he said. With that, he launched into a detailed discussion of the president's failure to set priorities in homeland security, and the need for a national threat assessment and a budget based on priorities. Comprehensive proposals, but they don't appear in Kerry's plan.

When the candidates do talk about homeland security, no one listens, Kerry's aide lamented. He cited Kerry's recent visit to a seaport to talk security -- an event that earned all of one line in an Associated Press story. The aide said homeland security doesn't make good copy because it's so diffuse, especially compared with violence in Baghdad or even in Afghanistan.

Other Democrats argue that the candidates really aren't trying. "I don't think the Democrats get homeland security, for the most part," said John Cohen, a former cop who worked at the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Clinton administration and is now a homeland-security consultant. "Since they don't get it, they've abdicated it."

A Game Plan

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., was the first to drop out of the presidential race, but he was also the first to critique Bush on terrorism, with the memorable line, "Osama bin Forgotten." As the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence who oversaw the Sept. 11 inquiry, Graham said he was running for president to fight terrorism. While his message didn't gain much momentum when he was on the campaign trail, it's catching on now. Perhaps that's not a coincidence. Graham has been advising many candidates informally. "They're being very generous with their time and, I hope, are receptive to some of the ideas I'm suggesting," he said last week in an interview.

Now, Graham is advocating a two-pronged approach to focus the debate on terrorism and connect Democrats' foreign-policy criticisms with homeland security. "For a long time, and to some degree still today, we were fighting about whether it was a wise decision to vote to go to Iraq at all," he said. "Now the question is, what do we do from here forward? What we need to do from here forward is to get serious about an offense, where the terrorists are -- and to get serious about defending ourselves here at home."

Graham didn't get specific, but Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, fleshed out a Democratic home-front response, which notably takes the funding debate off the table. "It's important for the Democrats to establish they have better ideas and not cede it in any way to this president," he says. "Making spending levels the issue would play into Karl Rove's hands and allow Republicans to argue [that] Democrats are using homeland security for pork-barrel spending."

Marshall offered a four-point proposal that he said would be both good politics and good policy -- and digestible for voters. The first point is intelligence. Marshall urges Democrats to argue that the administration "doesn't have the stomach" to stand up to the FBI, which he says is not set up for counter-terrorism operations. Democrats need to advocate for "an independent analytical center without law enforcement powers." But the key to Marshall's first point is that candidates should avoid getting caught up in arguments over where such a center should be located, but should focus instead on how to assemble an effective domestic-intelligence apparatus.

Second, he says, they should highlight Bush's failure to complete a comprehensive assessment of threats and vulnerabilities in America -- and then promise to complete one in a timely fashion and to use it to set budget and policy priorities.

Marshall's third priority is a comprehensive terrorist watch list. While the FBI has started to merge the various government watch lists, the job is far from finished. So, candidates need to tell voters why they can make that crucial task happen more quickly than the current occupant of the White House can. Marshall also thinks Democrats should push for a program of "smart ID cards" or driver's licenses that incorporate a biometric identifier, such as a fingerprint.

Fourth, he points to the ever-present topic of first responders. But Marshall says that Democrats should not limit first-responder proposals to funding for training and equipment but should also call for bolstering local public health systems, linking law enforcement information systems, and beefing up the local emergency-response system. With that kind of approach, first responders would be better able to fight terrorism, and also to more effectively reduce crime, detect disease, put out fires, and respond to natural disasters. Communities would then see first-responder efforts paying off, whether or not there's a terrorist attack.

Two wild cards remain on homeland security: whether the nation suffers another terrorist attack, and how Bush handles immigration policy. The jury is out as to whether another attack would help or hurt Bush politically. Most political prognosticators say it would depend on the nature of the incident and whether the public believed the federal government could or should have prevented it.

And last week, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge tipped the administration's hand on immigration policy by highlighting illegal immigration as a significant security risk. Bush later acknowledged that the administration has been working on a proposal to rationalize the country's immigration enforcement policy. How that issue shakes out will depend largely on what Bush proposes, and how the Democratic candidates respond. But pollster Zogby says a serious policy debate on homeland security may have to wait until the general election season. Currently, he says, the Democrats are in a scramble to win the primaries by revving up their party's base, so the domestic security focus is John Ashcroft. "Right now, you will hear about the PATRIOT Act on the hustings," Zogby says. Plus, polls show that voters in the key primary and caucus states -- New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina -- don't feel directly threatened by terrorism, which has historically targeted large cities. But, Zogby said, come general election time, the Democrats are going to need something to counter Bush's list of security accomplishments on the home front.

In view of Bush's tendency to appropriate their ideas, Democrats might want to take public ownership of their latest ones before Bush does.

-- Staff Correspondent Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. contributed to this report.