By Dan Gilgoff
Sat Mar 11, 3:49 PM ET
In 2002 and 2004, Republican Rep. Anne Northup (news, bio, voting record) was delighted when President Bush joined her for campaign stops in her Louisville, Ky., district. In 2006, she’s not so sure. Identified by the GOP as one of its most vulnerable incumbents, Northup has taken to emphasizing her differences with Bush, on issues like illegal immigration, and, recently, on the deal to give control of some U.S. ports to a United Arab Emirates-owned company. Last week, Northup and the vast majority of the House Appropriations Committee passed a measure to kill the deal. The Dubai-owned company quickly announced it would hand the ports over to a U.S. entity–details to come. «That rubber-stamp label isn’t going to stick on me,» Northup said after casting her vote. «That vote sends a message to my constituents.»
Even as the Dubai company’s Thursday announcement threw the American end of the deal into disarray, Northup’s vote also sent the message that, with Election Day 2006 on the horizon, the GOP is worried that its advantage is slipping on its signature issue: national security. «For the first time, there’s confusion in voters’ minds about the Republican commitment,» says GOP strategist Scott Reed. «National security is inching closer to becoming a jump ball between the parties.» Last week, Capitol Hill Republicans scrambled to burnish their tough-on-terrorism credentials, vowing to stop the ports deal, renewing the Patriot Act–despite some lingering reservations–and agreeing to forgo a full investigation into the National Security Agency’s wiretapping program. But as the GOP attempts to retake the national security high ground, Democrats will try to convince Americans that Republicans have made them less safe.
There’s no question that security is top on voters’ minds these days. Courting moderate Muslims abroad, enhancing trade relations, and balancing civil liberties all got swept away in the very clear message congressmen were getting from their constituents. The race for each party to define itself as taking a harder line on terrorism, and for lawmakers of both political stripes to be out front in trying to kill the ports deal, speaks partly to the degree to which the American electorate is still on high alert for another attack. A Gallup Poll early this year found that nearly half the country thought it «somewhat» to «very» likely that there would be a domestic terrorist attack in the next several weeks, almost as high as the number who felt that way in early 2002. Gallup also found that 2 in 3 Americans opposed the U.A.E. ports deal, and that more than 7 in 10 thought it «somewhat» to «very» easy for terrorists to bring weapons into the country via seaports. «The public opinion data were there almost immediately,» says Gallup Poll Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport. «If this was put to a referendum, Americans would vote against the deal.»
Muslim violence. Pollsters said the public sentiments also reflected American wariness of the Arab world–views that grew more negative in the wake of recent violence in Muslim nations including weeks of riots sparked by the Danish political cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Among those who knew a lot about the deal–that the Emirates was a U.S. ally, for instance–even more still opposed it. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week found that 1 in 4 Americans now admitted to harboring some prejudice against Arabs, and that nearly half the country holds an unfavorable view of Islam. «There is no question the numbers are troubling,» says pollster John Zogby, who is of Arab descent. «It means there’s a wide-open field for demagoguery.» Zogby argues that the public’s rejection of the ports was stoked by the hue and cry of Washington politicians and by the Bush administration’s failure to announce the deal and keep Congress and the public informed.
But there may be a deeper nativist instinct at work here: Gallup’s Newport stresses that polls show Americans to be just as wary about French-owned companies managing U.S. ports and even less trustful of ones based in China. If that’s the case, the politicians are more likely to be following the voters unease with things international–which could include immigration problems and jobs lost to foreign countries–than stoking it.
Tough as the Republicans have been on security issues, recent polls show that Democrats have made major strides. A Democratic analysis of Gallup polling that circulated on Capitol Hill last week showed that Bush’s 29-point lead over Democrats on the issue in 2002 had shrunk to just five points last month. U.S. News has learned that polling by the Democratic National Committee, scheduled to be released this week, shows that «Republicans are vulnerable, not just on the Iraq war but on a range of issues related to security, like whether people feel safer or not,» according to a DNC source. «There is an opportunity for Democrats to make gains in red states.»
Running on security. The Democrats’ strategy is to nationalize the ’06 elections by arguing that the administration’s incompetence on Iraq, responding to Hurricane Katrina, and approving the U.A.E. deal has made the United States more vulnerable. «The Republicans’ tough-talking rhetoric is no longer credible,» says Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. «Bin Laden is on the loose, and Iran and North Korea are developing nuclear weapons.» Democratic leaders had already dampened calls for increased civil liberties protections, with most in the Senate and a substantial minority in the House backing the Patriot Act. The party quietly dialed back insistence that Congress launch a wiretapping investigation. Then came Dubai. Says Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker: «Democrats caught a big break on the ports deal.»
But Hill Republicans say the fact that they’re breaking with the White House neutralizes the issue politically. And they are determined to localize the midterm elections. «Ports were the issue of the week, but it will settle down,» says New York Rep. Tom Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. «What will be around during election time … are the pocketbook issues.» Adds NRCC spokesman Carl Forti: «I have yet to see a congressional race where national security has wound up being a top issue.» Forti rejected the conventional wisdom that Republican gains in the 2002 elections owed much to the party’s national security advantage after September 11. But Rutgers’s Baker disagrees. «The 2006 election,» he says, «may contain a referendum on who is the most trusted guardian of national security.»
By Dan Gilgoff