Reading the polls and listening to the critics, it might appear that President Bush and the Republicans are on their last legs. Only about one third of the voters approve of the job Bush is doing, and the Democrats have more credibility in handling many of the nation's problems, from the economy to healthcare.
Democratic presidential front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are leading their GOP rivals in many hypothetical matchups for 2008.
But that's not the whole story. The Republicans believe they still have a not-so-secret weapon in their arsenal--their long-standing reputation since Ronald Reagan's era as the party of a strong national defense, the party that can keep America safe. And national security remains a "wedge issue" of paramount importance to most Americans--one that could still make the difference in the next election.
"The Republican Party continues to be the 'daddy party,'" said Ken Duberstein, Reagan's former White House chief of staff. "And Republicans still have a built-in advantage in terms of fighting terrorism."
Priorities. Their superiority isn't as dominant as it once was. "There's a lot of evidence," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, "that the Democrats have leveled the playing field on national security issues." Many voters, Garin adds, believe the GOP has set the wrong priorities, emphasizing the war in Iraq rather than the fight against terrorism.
Bush's critics were heartened by a recent NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll that found that 29 percent of Americans think the Democratic Party would do a better job dealing with terrorism; 29 percent chose the Republicans, and 20 percent rated both parties the same.
That amounts to parity, but the Democrats are still lagging on national security compared with the credibility they have gained on other concerns, such as education and cutting the deficit. And party strategists, including advisers to Clinton and Obama, fear that their limited gains on security could be easily demolished by GOP attacks next year.
It has happened before, notably in 2004 when Democratic nominee John Kerry was savaged as weak on defense, despite his distinguished Vietnam War record. "The public usually views the Republican Party as better on terrorism than the Democratic Party," says an analysis provided by the Gallup Poll.
That's why all the major Democratic candidates are trying to convey a tough stance toward terrorism, while opposing the Iraq war. Clinton is trying to placate her party's anti-Iraq war left while at the same time appearing tough-minded about the threats facing the country.
Her advisers say she is "antiwar and pro-defense," and concede she is well aware that a Democratic candidate in the general election has a special challenge to show strength.
Obama is walking the same tightrope. He recently said he would talk with the world's rogue-state leaders without preconditions. But then he caused a furor by declaring that as president he would order raids on terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan if there were "actionable intelligence" on their whereabouts and if the Islamabad regime didn't do the job itself.
Democratic candidate John Edwards made a similar pledge last week in an interview with U.S. News (Page 28) --to go after Osama bin Laden "wherever he was." Edwards has been one of the most dovish presidential candidates, at least on Iraq, but he knows he can't afford to be seen as wobbly on defense.
"There is no question that we must confront terrorist groups such as al Qaeda with the full force of our military might," he writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.
Worried. The party's sensitivity was clear in early August when leaders of the Democratic majority in Congress refused to block Bush's request for expanded authority to conduct surveillance osuspected terrorists under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Many Democrats were leery about potential civil-liberties violations in amending the law, and they promised to revisit the issue within six months.
But they were also worried about seeming weak, so they went along with the measure for the time being. Most House Democrats opposed it, but 41 voted yes, allowing it to pass.
Enactment was "an acknowledgment that security reform is a basic concern of the American people," said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. "They understand that al Qaeda is predisposed to kill Americans anytime they can possibly do it. ... If you take a look at the realities around the world, the options are pretty limited, and the realities are inescapable."
Many Democrats don't agree with that assessment, arguing that Bush has gone too far in his "war on terror" and is using it as a political bludgeon to turn public opinion against the Democrats.
Actually, the party's problem goes back more than 30 years. Historians say congressional Democrats dug themselves into a deep hole when they forced the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and cut off money to the Saigon government in its struggle against the Communists.
Republicans argue that since then the Democrats have shied away from using military force and have appeared impotent. President Jimmy Carter hurt the party's image further; he seemed naive about the intentions of the Soviet Union and was unable to win freedom for U.S. hostages in Iran in the final year of his presidency.
Kevin Madden, spokesman for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, says too many Democratic leaders are "liberal, antiwar internationalists" who aren't willing to "make the tough decisions required to make the country safe." That's a common view in the GOP--and a note that will be struck repeatedly in next year's general-election campaign.
In fact, since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, outgoing White House political strategist Karl Rove has urged GOP candidates to use the security issue as aggressively as possible against the Democrats.
In June 2005, Rove said, "Perhaps the most important difference between conservatives and liberals can be found in the area of national security. Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war. Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers."
This theme has been echoed by President Bush, who, in the middle of the midterm campaign last September, said, "The stakes in this war are high, and so are the stakes this November. Americans face the choice between two parties with two different attitudes on this war on terror.
Five years after 9/11, the worst attack on American homeland in our history, the Democrats offer nothing but criticism and obstruction, and endless second-guessing. The party of FDR and the party of Harry Truman has become the party of cut and run."
Democrats contend that Bush's assessment of their party is nonsense. Whether they can make their case to the American people may determine whether they control the White House and Congress in 2009.
By Kenneth T. Walsh