War on Terror Holds Key for Republicans

Never mind the weather outside. The political barometer in Washington says Republicans are heading into a terrible storm.

Congressional Quarterly recently conducted an exhaustive review of the political winds blowing this summer and concluded that the GOP is in trouble: “All current indicators suggest that the Big One — hurricane, tidal wave, tsunami or tornado … — is gathering in the middle distance.”

The Washington Post’s David Broder predicts “serious trouble for the GOP across a broad swath of states from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma.” The Hill newspaper, which covers Congress, reported that “the universe of competitive congressional races is broadening” and that most of the newly identified vulnerable incumbents are Republicans. Indeed, according to the CQ analysis, “a total of 57 GOP seats … are currently in play, to just 19 for the Democrats.”

With the overall approval rating for Congress below 30% and only 55% applauding their own House member’s performance (the lowest this rating has been since just before the 1994 election), the time has long since passed for congressional leaders to up the ante and give their potential supporters something to cheer about.

Sure, Washington’s jaded insiders may say, but what are the odds that a robust legislative initiative could advance in this hopelessly gridlocked Congress? Democrats have stymied just about every promising bill. The list includes: expanding drilling for oil and natural gas in Alaska, in the Gulf, and off our coasts; removing regulatory bottlenecks to the construction of new oil refineries; making Bush’s tax cuts permanent; limiting spending through budget process reforms such as hard spending caps and the line-item veto and requiring the United Nations to adopt serious reforms or lose U.S. taxpayer contributions. Republicans, CQ assumes, “will probably go home to face the voters with few newly minted legislative trophies to brag about.”

But that need not be the case. The recent success by British and U.S. intelligence in thwarting the terrorist plot to explode a dozen U.S.-bound planes over the Atlantic, coupled with a renewed chorus of liberal defeatism in the war on terror, provides a potential opening.

Liberals George Soros, the uber-liberal billionaire, and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently weighed in with dour assessments of our prospects in the war on terror. Soros described it as “an endless war waged against an unseen enemy” that in the end “cannot be won.” Haass agreed that “there is no end in sight” and made the remarkable concession that “terrorism is now part of the fabric of contemporary life.” Our best hope, he wrote, is to reduce terrorism “to a scale that won’t threaten the openness, security or prosperity of modern societies.”

For politically besieged Republicans, terrorism remains the one issue on which they connect with the voters. Legislatively, much remains to be done. That remaining work, moreover, continues to inspire heated opposition from congressional liberals. If that ideological divide is sufficiently emphasized before the election, today’s rudderless Republicans could rise above the projected tsunami and surprise the pundits.

“Too much emphasis,” my colleague James Carafano writes, “has been placed on preparing to respond to terrorist acts and not enough on enhancing the ability of law enforcement to uncover and disrupt attacks on U.S. citizens.” Incessant complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union and other liberal groups, Carafano says, have created a chilling effect on our ability to provide law enforcement authorities with the tools they need to preempt terrorist acts. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff points to the importance of good intelligence, saying: “if we can’t get a reasonable amount of information on people … and if we can’t get it in a timely fashion, we are tying our hands against what is still a very serious threat.”

Congressional leaders should force up-or-down votes on a solid anti-terrorism legislative package upon Congress’ return next month. Such a package should:

  • Authorize surveillance of phone calls, emails, and financial transactions involving suspected terrorists.
  • Establish federal guidelines for the use of sophisticated data-mining technologies that enable investigators to sort through and organize massive volumes of information into a more coherent picture. Specifically, it should rush into service the Transportation Security Agency’s idle program to screen domestic air flight manifests for suspected terrorists.
  • Respond to the Supreme Court’s Hamdan decision by explicitly authorizing military tribunals, which rightly place national security interests ahead of individual liberty, to try suspected terrorists.
  • Authorize a preventive terrorist detention law that, consistent with civil liberties, allows authorities to keep would-be terrorists off the street while they assemble proof of life-threatening terrorist plots.

It’s essential that lawmakers debate these issues before the election. After all, no American should be willing to concede defeat in the War on Terror. Nor should we be asked to integrate terrorism into the fabric of our daily lives, as Soros and Haass propose.

Yet that may be the choice we face this November.