Jose F. Moreno  /  AP
With an aerial photo of the port of Newark, N.J. as a backdrop, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., discussed the takeover of port operations by Dubai Ports World.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 2/21/2006 6:01:43 PM ET 2006-02-21T23:01:43

Well before Sept. 11, 2001, polling showed that the public trusted Republicans more than Democrats on national security. And since 9/11, President Bush has seemingly "owned" the issue.

But now two wrinkles have emerged — an Arab firm’s takeover of leases of container terminals at East Coast U.S. ports, and increasingly bold steps by illegal immigrants to enter the United States — giving Democrats an opening to charge that President Bush and his party aren’t vigilant enough against threats to the nation’s security.

On Tuesday morning in San Diego, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., conferred with border officials to discuss last month’s discovery of an underground tunnel crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Feinstein, up for re-election this November, unveiled new legislation making the building of such border tunnels a federal offense.

Meanwhile in an unusual left-right combination, New York’s two Democratic senators, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, the Republican governors of New York and Maryland, George Pataki and Robert Ehrlich, and an array of House Republicans, are crying foul over the takeover of container terminals in six East Coast ports by Dubai Ports World, a company owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates.

The firm has won Bush administration approval for its $6.8 billion purchase of the London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co.

Clinton and Sen. Robert Menendez, D- N.J., who are both up for election this November, will offer legislation to prohibit firms owned or controlled by foreign governments from purchasing port operations in the United States.

Critics of the port takeover, which will be completed on March 2, argue that some of the 9/11 hijackers used the UAE as an operational and financial base.

Even Frist has doubts
Even Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, usually a sturdy Bush ally, added his voice Tuesday to those challenging the port deal.

“If the Administration cannot delay the process, I plan on introducing legislation to ensure that the deal is placed on hold until this decision gets a more thorough review,” Frist said in a written statement.

“The problem the Bush people have is that one of their fundamental tenets is to scare people about terrorist threats; well, here’s a legitimate national security issue and they’re saying, ‘not a problem,’” said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf. “I can’t imagine any of their (Republican) members of Congress wanting to have this put to a vote.”

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The port deal was approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an inter-agency committee headed by the Secretary of Treasury. In 1988, Congress gave the panel power to review any proposed foreign acquisition of a U.S. corporation that is determined to threaten American national security. It also gave the president authority to suspend or prohibit any such acquisition.

Citing the CFIUS’s closed-door meetings, Elmendorf said, “It’s another example of the Bush administration operating in secrecy where they don’t have to explain what they’re doing. If they believe this position is defensible, they should explain it in the light of day.”

A 'racist tinge'?
Striking a contrary tone was the international business newspaper, the Financial Times, which in an editorial Tuesday said, “The bluster about national security conceals one of the uglier faces of U.S. protectionism — the one with the slightly racist tinge.”

But Elmendorf said, “I don’t think its racist to say that we have legitimate questions about a foreign government, any foreign government, controlling strategic assets if our country.”

Referring to Democrats’ opposition to the port transaction and the Mexican tunnel, Republican pollster Whit Ayres said, “I think it’s a very smart thing for the Democrats to do when the war on terror remains one of the most important issues facing the country and the Democrats are just not competitive in the minds of most voters on national security. They’ve got to do something. Taking on the port issue and taking on the border security issue is a smart way to try to get back in the game.”

But Ayres argued that Democrats still carry a burden with voters. 

“The problem is that with the story about (National Security Agency) wiretapping and with the issues on which the Democrats tend to be most vocal, the picture that’s being presented to the American people is that Bush is trying to catch the terrorists and the Democrats are trying to make that process more difficult," Ayres said.

"That’s the big image — so the smaller things, like what Sen. Feinstein is doing, while smart and important, don’t blunt the larger picture of Al Gore trashing United States treatment of Arabs when he was in Saudi Arabia or the overall Democratic apparent reluctance to be really aggressive in the war on terror.”

GOP voters' concerns about immigration
Ayres said Republican leaders had better show some progress on immigration by the time the voters cast their ballots in November.

"Without question,” Ayres, said, within the ranks of Republican voters there is a feeling not enough has been done to stem illegal immigration. “This is an issue that is bubbling up from the bottom,” he said. Acting on illegal immigration “is one of the most crucial things they (Republican leaders) need to do… There is a general sense in the country at large that illegal immigration is out of control and that it has all kind of negative consequences for the rule of law, for national security, for social services.”

Democratic strategist David Sirota, who has worked for Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and for Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, said Democrats now have a significant chance to turn the national security tide.

“The Bush administration's mishandling of national security has given Democrats a unique opportunity to redefine the entire national security debate,” Sirota said. “The last three years will go down in the history books as the classic example of how an administration, governed by hard-right ideology, can weaken our country's security. All you have to do is look at the images of the fiery chaos in Iraq juxtaposed next to the laughing, still-at-large Osama bin Laden taunting the West to know that George Bush's ‘toughness’ is, in reality, dangerous stupidity.”

Talking about port security will not be sufficient in Sirota’s view. Democrats will need to offer an Iraq exit plan, he said.

“Are they going to start frontally challenging the White House by showing exactly how President Bush has endangered America? Clearly, the only real way to do that is for the party to address Iraq,” Sirota said. “Democrats are fooling themselves if they believe the party can redefine themselves on national security without offering a bold vision for bringing our troops home and focusing our resources on the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11.”

He called Iraq “President Bush's biggest political liability -- but only if Democrats actually have the guts to stand up and start talking about it. If they do not, they will once again look like they stand for nothing other than their own political ambitions.”

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