He who frames the issues tends to determine the outcome of the election. That’s an old rule of political consultants, the first and most important rule, really.
It’s a rule that George W. Bush’s chief political strategist Karl Rove knows well. And it’s a rule that he and Bush — and events — have put into operation over the last few weeks. For months, the central issue of the off-year election has been, Hasn’t Bush kept us too long in Iraq? Now, the issue seems to have become, Who can keep us safe against the Islamofascist terrorists who want to kill us and destroy our society?
The first question tends to help the Democrats. The second tends to help Bush and the Republicans.
Events have played a part here. The breakup in August of the London plot to bomb airliners over the Atlantic came just hours after Ned Lamont’s defeat of Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut primary put an antiwar face on the Democratic Party. The fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 put the burning Twin Towers, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., back on television screens. "The Path to 9-11" docudrama on ABC — the No. 2 rated program on Sept. 10 and No. 1 on Sept. 11 — reminded us that the terrorists were on the attack as long ago as February 1993, the date of the first World Trade Center bombing.
Bill Clinton and members of his administration objected to the docudrama, for fear they would be seen as not having done enough to protect us against terrorists. But we all know that the Clinton administration did not do enough, and that the Bush administration did not do enough in its first eight months. We’re less interested in blaming them than we are in making sure we elect people who will keep us safe.
Bush’s series of speeches since Labor Day have put the focus clearly on the question of who will keep us safe. And the legislative issues raised by forces unsympathetic to the administration and which Bush has now put squarely before Congress will likely sustain that focus.
The first issue was raised by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hamdan case last June. The court did not challenge the government’s contentions that the defendants were unlawful combatants under the Geneva Convention and that they could be tried by military tribunals. But it ruled that Congress had to set forth rules for interrogations and trials. Bush’s proposal seems to be opposed by most Democrats and — complicating the politics — by Republican Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and John Warner.
But it still remains an issue individual Republican candidates can use in their campaigns. They can ask why their Democratic opponents don’t want tough interrogations of the likes of 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammed and why they want secret intelligence turned over to terrorists at their trials. That framing of the issue is not likely to favor Democrats.
The other issue comes from the most persistent partisan opponent of the administration, The New York Times, which revealed last December that the National Security Agency was conducting electronic surveillance of calls from suspected al-Qaida terrorists abroad to persons in the United States. The Times and many Democrats saw this as a terrible violation of Americans’ civil liberties. But polls suggest that most voters see it as simple common sense. When al-Qaida calls the United States, we shouldn’t hang up the phone. Bush has asked Congress to authorize such surveillance. The roll call votes will tell voters whose first priority is keeping America safe.
Polls have shown a noticeable uptick in Bush’s job approval and in Republican candidates’ performance over the past few weeks. Most notable was the movement in the Rasmussen poll, which because it is weighted by party identification usually registers only glacial shifts. Rasmussen’s three-night average Bush job approval showed a rise from 41 percent in interviews conducted Sept. 8 to Sept. 10 to 47 percent on interviews conducted Sept. 11 to Sept. 13.
That number in the latest poll is back down to 45 percent, and Scott Rasmussen cautions that Bush’s rise may be only temporary. But he also notes that it was caused by a big rise among Republican voters, and in an era in which turnout has been the key ingredient in electoral success, that’s a sign that Republican turnout may be more robust in November than Democrats and many observers have expected. Which is not to say that Democrats have no chance of gaining majorities in the House and Senate — they do. But the issues have been reframed, and the odds against them seem longer.