Three months before the congressional elections, Republicans are using two events — the London airliner plot and Connecticut Democrats’ choice of anti-war phenomenon Ned Lamont as their Senate candidate — to dramatically raise the ante with a new offensive on national security.
Just as the 2002 off-year congressional election proved in the end to be decided by national security, it seems this year’s election, too, will hinge on how voters judge each party’s ability to defend America from the people whom President Bush on Thursday called “Islamic fascists.”
Sounding the keynote Friday for the Republicans was the man who analysts say is the most endangered GOP senator up for re-election on Nov. 7, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who faces a daunting battle against Democrat Bob Casey, Jr.
In a conference call with reporters, Santorum said the lesson of the airliner bombing plot, which British authorities broke up on Wednesday night, was the necessity of aggressive intelligence gathering.
“It wasn’t the Transportation Security Administration that foiled and defused this plot; it was good intelligence,” he said.
Santorum rips 'traitors'
Santorum denounced “the traitors within the intelligence community” who leaked the existence of the National Security Agency surveillance of international phone calls. Leading Democrats have harshly criticized the NSA surveillance and Santorum’s Pennsylvania colleague, Sen. Arlen Specter, a fellow Republican, has designed a bill to bring the NSA program under congressional authority.
Santorum said leakers “must be pursued aggressively and the media has to take a much more responsible approach to defeating this Islamic fascist threat to America.”
He called news media organizations “complicit” with the “traitors” in publishing stories about the NSA surveillance.
Santorum made a point of linking his opponent Casey to Lamont, the man who defeated Sen. Joe Lieberman Tuesday, in a race that was dominated by Democratic voters’ anger with Lieberman’s support for the U.S. involvement in Iraq.
Lieberman filed Wednesday to run as an independent.
“Mr. Lamont and my opponent, Mr. Casey, would like to garrison the United States. I don’t think that’s a realistic possibility. Why would we want to invite them (terrorists) here to test our defenses?”
Instead, he said, America must “aggressively go after them on the offensive where they are, disrupting their networks where they live….”
London plot and Lieberman loss
Santorum also argued that Democratic voters wouldn’t have booted out Lieberman if the London plot had been revealed before Tuesday’s primary.
“I don’t think there’s any question that if the election in Connecticut were today there would probably be a very different result,” he said. “One of the big problems with this war is that when we have such gaps in time between attempted attacks on the United States and our allies, we tend to forget this is an enemy that still hates us and wants to go after us.”
Lieberman himself on Wednesday linked the U.S. deployment in Iraq with the London airliner plot.
“If we just pick up like Ned Lamont wants to do, get out by a date certain, it will be taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes in this plot hatched in England. It will strengthen them and they will strike again,” he said.
Responding to Santorum’s linkage of Casey with Lamont, Casey spokesman Larry Smar said the GOP senator “must have received the memo from Karl Rove and Dick Cheney to play cheap, partisan politics with our national security. Too bad that’s not going to work with Bob Casey. Bob Casey supports doubling the number of Special Forces, increasing our intelligence capabilities, and hunting down terrorists wherever they may be.”
He said, “The 9/11 Commission gave the Congress and the President failing grades on implementing its recommendations. Santorum has voted against funding for port security, rail security, and chemical plant security.”
Firing back, Santorum spokesmen said Casey’s forces were “cherry picking votes on Democratic-sponsored amendments” and ignoring Santorum’s record of trying to beef up border security.
Lamont and Casey together?
Asked whether Casey planned to campaign with Lamont, Smar said, “We’re busy enough with our own race. Bob Casey will work next year with whoever is the junior senator from Connecticut.”
Conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Dan Henninger, called the revelation of the London airliner plot “unfortunate timing this week for the Lamont Democrats.”
He asked, “Who would you rather have in the Senate formulating policy toward this threat -- Ned Lamont or Joe Lieberman?”
But Lamont himself on Monday — before the news of the London plot — argued that his breed of Democrats could do a better job at defending the nation than Bush, Santorum and Lieberman have done.
“I think that President Bush has weakened this country, miring us in the war in Iraq, he’s hurt our relationships with key allies. That’s how we’re strong, working with our allies and being true to our values. We’re going to need a strong and robust defense and Connecticut’s defense industry is going to be at the forefront of that,” he said.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, in an e-mail sent to Democrats by the Senatorial Campaign Committee, accused GOP leaders of “using terrorism and our national security as a political wedge issue. It is disgusting — but not surprising.”
Are we safer or not?
Reid also contended that “Because of the mishandled occupation of Iraq and other diplomatic failures, the United States is undoubtedly not safer than it was five years ago.”
But Santorum argued Americans are safer, but many of them just don’t appreciate that fact.
“We must be doing something right. It’s not like these people (jihadists) don’t want to attack us… We get absolutely no credit for the fact that America since Sept. 11 have not been attacked here in this country,” he said.
He also argued the American people don’t fully understand the jihadist threat. “It’s obvious to me that the public is not taking this as seriously as they should because there would be very few people in America who would be for withdrawing our troops any time soon or for pulling back from this confrontation if they believed that doing so would be a serious national security threat to this country.”
Santorum voiced some frustration with Bush for not focusing the public mind. Of the London plot he said, “I hope the president takes this as an opportunity to lay out a new course, a different course and re-explain what we’re in involved in here and the complexity and difficulty of the job ahead.”
He also said, “We have not done a good job in explaining what Iran is all about.”