Max Cleland, an American soldier who courageously served his country in the Vietnam War, was injured in a grenade blast that ripped both his legs and one arm from his body. Cleland later went on to become a democratic senator from Georgia. In 2002, he voted to give President Bush authorization for the war in Iraq. Later that year, his Senate opponent ran television ads displaying Cleland’s face juxtaposed with images of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. A war hero slimed as a traitor, Cleland fell victim to the worst type of smear – a sensationalized and definitively primitive exercise in the politics of fear. Senator Cleland lost his election.
A strikingly similar course of events occurred two years later in the 2004 presidential campaign. Another Vietnam War hero and democratic senator who voted to authorize the war in Iraq, Senator John Kerry, was attacked by his republican opponent as being weak on terrorists. His war record was tarnished and his heroism ridiculed. Despite voting for Bush’s war, audience members attending the 2004 Republican National Convention were handed purple bandages to mock Kerry’s war injuries. And, as we all know, Kerry lost.
The lesson learned? Spinelessly acquiescing to Republicans in order to pass bad bills won’t win you elections.
Now many democrats seem ready to fall into the same trap by voting to pass poor legislation in an effort to appear strong on national security. They thus shield themselves from electoral attacks. Of course it won’t work – republicans will still attempt to tap into post-9/11 paranoia by portraying their campaign opponents as being soft on terror.
We see this potentially happening with current Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act legislation. Previously, the executive branch needed a warrant before conducting surveillance. The 2007 Protect America Act – an amendment to the older FISA – now allows the National Security Agency to intercept electronic messages of suspected terrorists if one of those on the phone is “reasonably believed to be located outside of the United States.” The NSA is not required to seek court approval and is allowed to wait a full 120 days before alerting the courts of said activity. Privacy advocates have rightfully been in an uproar. Americans who care about such things as the Constitution and civil liberties are urging Congress to let the Protect America Act expire when the bill’s 180-day sunset clause sets.
The Bush administration being the Bush administration, they’ve urged Congress to make these new executive powers permanent. Additionally, they’ve asked Congress to grant legal immunity to all telecommunications companies that may have illegally helped the administration perform domestic surveillance through participation in the warrantless wiretapping program.
While democrats are unlikely to make the program permanent, yesterday they voted in a House committee not to immunize telecommunications companies. There seems to be a tangible fear among democrats that they will be the targets of national security slander if they do not kowtow to the administration on wire-tapping. Of course they are correct in fearing such attacks. But here’s the catch: They will be attacked anyway. From gays to terrorists to big scary liberal programs, recent republican electoral victories have been based almost unabashedly on getting American voters to shit their pants. Capitulating to republicans will not help democrats get elected, and hopefully congressional democrats will not back down again.
White House strategist Karl Rove has indicated the moment he knew Bush would get re-elected in the 2004 election. It was when John Kerry stated that even had he known weapons of mass destruction were unlikely to be found, he still would have voted to authorize the war in Iraq, thus failing to give a strong alternative to Bush. Bill Clinton was correct when he stated that voters prefer candidates who are “strong and wrong, rather than weak and right.”
Democrats have the issues on their side, and if they stand up to republicans and give voters a true vision for America, they will win the 2008 election. Trying to appease republicans on issues like warrantless wiretapping and torture won’t make a politician appear tough. Voters will see through the façade. But if the democrats do the right thing and explain their positions, they’ll be in good shape next year. Should they do otherwise, let’s just say that if anybody can screw up an election, it’s the democrats.