The Oval: Bush Still Controls Security Debate

Close your eyes, and you might think you were listening to President Bush.

"I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate," said the New York senator, when asked about what should be done in the event of another attack like 9/11. "The first thing I would do is be certain I knew who was responsible, and I would act swiftly and strongly to hold them responsible for that," said the former North Carolina senator. "We have genuine enemies out there that have to be hunted down, networks have to be dismantled," said the Illinois senator, in his second attempt to nail the question.

The Democratic Party did an admirable job of sticking together during the recent debate over funding of the Iraq War on Capitol Hill—sending Bush legislation demanding that timetables be set for the drawdown of U.S. forces, even in the face of a president's veto. And the Democrats remain confident, despite their inability to muster enough votes to override the veto, that the American people are on their side at this juncture in the war.

But you wouldn't know it to hear their presidential candidates talk about national-security threats. At the Democratic debate last week in South Carolina, the party's leading lights seemed to be trying to outdo one another at sounding tough—or, put another way, sounding like Bush. The president may be faring poorly in public-opinion polls, but he is still controlling the terms of this particular debate.

The Democrats could have focused their attention on the president's failure to secure Iraq, or his part in helping to turn the country into a terrorist breeding ground. They could have criticized his conflicted approach to Pakistan, where Al Qaeda's core leadership has found safe haven. They could have played up the need to build international consensus before taking military action—and to ensure that the enemy you're striking actually had something to do with the attack. Instead, their answers about another 9/11 scenario were all about hitting back, as hard and as fast as possible.

But it's not just the Democrats who are singing from Bush's songbook. Look for the GOP's 2008 hopefuls to do it, too, when they convene in California Thursday night. Sen. John McCain may emphasize repeatedly his criticism of the conduct of the Iraq War, but remains a staunch supporter of the "surge." And his speeches these days are awfully reminiscent of Bush's second inaugural address on the subjects of freedom and democracy. Take the talk he gave at Stanford's Hoover Institution on Tuesday. In it, McCain made no serious attempt to square the lofty rhetoric of "an enduring peace based on freedom," as he called it, with the realpolitik of relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Instead, he outlined an extension of Bush's compromises with those countries. "Our national interests require that we pursue economic and strategic cooperation with China and Russia, that we support Egypt and Saudi Arabia's role as peacemakers in the Middle East, and that we work with Pakistan to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda," he said. "But our national interests also require that we continually press for progress."

Rudy Giuliani, the current GOP front runner, also sounds a lot like Bush, circa 2004. Giuliani told Sean Hannity last week that Al Qaeda had survived—and would continue to threaten America—because of the Democrats. "They do not seem to get the fact that there are people, terrorists in this world, really dangerous people that want to come here and kill us," he said. "That in fact they did come here and kill us twice and they got away with it because we were on defense, because we weren't alert enough to the dangers and the risks … They want to take us back to not being as alert, which to me, will just extend this war much, much longer." (Bush no longer uses such language about Democrats—perhaps because he feels the need to be more conciliatory now that the opposition party controls Capitol Hill. But Vice President Dick Cheney still does.)

These are strange strategies for today's political environment. According to a recent NBC News poll, 74 percent of voters want to see the next president take a different approach from President Bush. Just 21 percent want to see the same policies. The president's job approval rating stands at a meager 35 percent. That suggests at least one third of Republicans want a change from Bush's policies.

But as long as no serious candidate for president has backed away from the basic Bush paradigm for handling future threats, the president faces no real political pressure to change his tune—and he'll continue to control the debate through the end of his second term.

That Merkel magic

First it was a back rub in Russia. Now it's a lovefest in the Rose Garden between President Bush and his German counterpart, Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Merkel was visiting the White House this week, as Germany holds the rotating presidency of the European Union (she is also hosting the G8 summit next month). But with Britain's Tony Blair in his last weeks in office, Merkel was also filling the position of Bush's European surrogate.

After thanking the president as "dear George" at the top of the mini-press conference, Merkel went out of her way to praise his proposals on alternative energy—a policy that Bush is hardly famous for in Europe. When one reporter expressed skepticism about their newfound harmony on the environment, Merkel chided the press. "I think this is where we should be clear about the glass being half full, instead of half empty," she said. "So think again."

Now if he could just convince the Chancellor to engage her troops in serious combat in Afghanistan, President Bush might forge a friendship strong enough to help him get over the political exit of his pal in London.

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