After four years of refusing to talk about methods of conducting the war on terrorism, President Bush astounded many when the admitted to domestic spying and even interrupted holiday cheer with a radio address, a prime-time television address and a press conference to defend it. But the surprise is that so many people were surprised.
For the Bush administration, the War on Terrorism is the gift that keeps on giving. Since September 11, 2001 the country's response to the president, terrorism and the war against it has been the White House's trump card. As the president's overall poll ratings have sunk, approval of his handling of terrorism continues to be his greatest asset. In the latest, his sky-high rating of 90 percent on terrorism from December 2001 is down to 48 percent approve-45 percent disapprove. But it remains ten points better than his rating on handling the economy and 12 points better than his rating on handling the Iraq war.
In the 2004 campaign, Bush pummeled John Kerry on terrorism issue. The Republican convention was held in New York City and was laced with reminders of his megaphone moment at the World Trade Center following the terrorist attacks. The Bushies successfully and expensively painted Kerry as indecisive and many (including Kerry) believe that the tape of Osama on the eve of the election was enough to push Bush over the top with those security moms
So while many cast the president's public offensive on spying as damage control, it is not at all surprising that Bush strategists bragged about it as an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership and to "put Democrats in a box." CBS News' Mark Knoller reported last Saturday that a "senior administration said that now they (Democratic critics) face a choice: support our efforts to protect Americans or defend positions that put our nation at greater risk."
President Bush took another proven winner out of his playbook and attacked the media as well as the Democrats for reporting on the NSA surveillance, suggesting that "as a result, our enemies have learned information they should not have, and the unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk."
Putting Democrats on the defensive worked in 2002 and 2004. In 2005, even after Democrats found success in presenting a unified force against the Bush administration on Social Security, they were still tongue-tied on defense and foreign policy. Despite the cover they got from Democratic hawk Jack Murtha's exit strategy, they remained nervous. Their 2008 frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Clinton, made it clear she was against wimping out of Iraq and DNC Chair Howard Dean had to "clarify" remarks that were labeled defeatist.
But unauthorized domestic spying has pushed the Democrats' buttons and they have taken the White House's dare to look like they were putting the country at risk by complaining about the spying. Russ Feingold, the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act in 2001, is leading the charge and this time he has 39 other Democrats, four Republicans and independent Jim Jeffords behind him.
The president has admitted mistakes in Iraq, has asked for more time to bring the war in Iraq to a successful conclusion and, in the spirit of the holiday season, more Americans may want to honor that request. But he is also playing on their continued fear of attack from terrorists to get them to honor his other request to trust him to do the right thing, including unauthorized domestic spying, to protect the country. On wish number two, his time may be running out and he may find that he has used his terrorism trump card once too often.