he campaign against Social Security is
going so badly that longtime critics of President Bush, accustomed
to seeing their efforts to point out flaws in administration
initiatives brushed aside, are pinching themselves. But they
shouldn't relax: if the past is any guide, the Bush administration
will soon change the subject back to national security.
The political landscape today reminds me of the spring of 2002,
after the big revelations of corporate fraud. Then, as now, the
administration was on the defensive, and Democrats expected to do
well in midterm elections.
Then, suddenly, it was all Iraq, all the time, and Harken Energy
and Halliburton vanished from the headlines.
I don't know which foreign threat the administration will start
playing up this time, but Bush critics should be prepared for the
shift. They must curb their natural inclination to focus almost
exclusively on domestic issues, and challenge the administration on
national security policy, too.
I say this even though many critics, myself included, would
prefer to stick with the domestic issues. After all, domestic
issues, particularly Social Security, are very comfortable ground
for moderates and liberals. The relevant facts are all in the public
domain, voters clearly oppose the administration's hard-right
agenda, and Mr. Bush's attack on Social Security stumbled badly out
of the gate. It's understandable, then, that critiques of the
administration's national security policy have faded into the
background in recent months.
But a president can always change the subject to national
security if he wants to - and Mr. Bush has repeatedly shown himself
willing to play the terrorism card when he is losing the debate on
other issues. So it's important to point out that Mr. Bush, for all
his posturing, has done a very bad job of protecting the nation -
and to make that point now, rather than in the heat of the next
The fact is that Mr. Bush, while willing to go to war on weak
evidence, hasn't taken the task of protecting America from
terrorists at all seriously.
Consider, for example, the case of chemical plants.
Just days after 9/11, many analysts identified sites that store
toxic chemicals as a major terror risk, and called for new safety
rules. But as The New York Times reported last fall, "after the oil
and chemical industries met with Karl Rove ... the White House
quietly blocked those efforts."
Nearly three and a half years after 9/11, those chemical plants
are still unprotected.
Other major risks identified within days of the attack included
the possibility of terrorist attacks on major ports or nuclear
plants. But in the months after 9/11, the administration flatly
refused to allocate the sums that members of the House and Senate
from both parties thought necessary to secure these sites.
And when the administration does spend money protecting possible
terrorist targets, politics, not national security, dictates where
the money goes. Remember the "first responders" program that ended
up spending seven times as much protecting each resident of Wyoming
as it spent protecting each resident of New York?
Well, it's still happening. An audit of the Homeland Security
Department's (greatly inadequate) program to protect ports found
that much of the money went to unlikely locations, including six
sites in landlocked Arkansas, where the department's recently
resigned chief of border and transportation security is reported to
be considering a run for governor.
Nor are Mr. Bush's national security failures limited to
nonmilitary policy. The administration appears to be in a state of
denial over the effects of the endless war in Iraq on U.S. military
readiness, particularly the strains on the reserves and the National
The ultimate demonstration of Mr. Bush's true priorities was his
attempt to appoint Bernard Kerik as homeland security director.
Either the administration didn't bother to do even the most basic
background checks, or it regarded protecting the nation from
terrorists as a matter of so little importance that it didn't matter
who was in charge.
My point is that Mr. Bush's critics are falling unnecessarily
into a trap if they focus only on domestic policies and allow Mr.
Bush to keep his undeserved reputation as someone who keeps
Americans safe. National security policy should not be a refuge to
which Mr. Bush can flee when his domestic agenda falls apart.