Congressional Republicans are at their weakest point politically in decades, but they still appear to be keeping Democrats on the defensive when it comes to national security.
The GOP attacks, particularly on the closing of the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, prison and the treatment of suspected terrorists there, have tied Democrats in parliamentary knots and repeatedly put President Barack Obama on the spot. While Democrats don’t believe the GOP is making major political headway, Republicans are relishing the fight.
“The president made some major missteps, including announcing he would be closing Gitmo without fully understanding it,— House Intelligence ranking member Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) said.
“What they found on Gitmo is it’s a whole lot more complicated than they thought,— he added. “It’s not just 249 nice people you can bring into the United States.—
Last week, with negotiations stalled on the $105.9 billion war supplemental spending bill, Obama gave ground on Guantánamo and on the the release of detainee interrogation photos. Obama had decided previously to keep the photos from going public, but he had to personally reassure members of the conference committee that he would do everything he could to keep them secret, regardless of what happens in an ongoing court case. And on Guantánamo, he gave up for now the prospect of bringing to the United States detainees cleared for release.
Obama’s decision on Guantánamo came after months of pounding by Republicans against “importing terrorists.— Democrats in both chambers criticized Obama as lacking a plan for closing the prison, giving Republicans more ammunition.
Hoekstra said the administration and its backers on the Hill have continually miscalculated on national security and given Republicans openings to go on the offensive.
“I think part of it was an arrogance, and part of it was they didn’t think things through,— Hoekstra said. “They never thought they would be challenged.—
Democrats said that while Republicans may have won a few headlines on national security and gained traction on cable news programs, voters back home are focused on the economy, health care and energy.
“This is the only card they have and they are playing it,— a House Democratic leadership aide said. “They have nothing left but to stand on the sidelines and throw mud.—
This aide said that some of the issues simply have come from having a new president.
“You do have a young administration that is still getting their policies in order,— the aide said. “We need to push back on Republican attacks with strong policy, and that’s the direction we’re hearing. At the end of the day, Guantánamo Bay is going to be closed, with strong support.—
Democrats also stumbled earlier this year when they were pushing for a truth commission on torture during the George W. Bush administration. Republicans successfully diverted attention instead onto Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and charged that she knew years ago about the use of waterboarding and other techniques, and that she did nothing about it.
Complicating matters, Pelosi is engaged in a high-profile spat with CIA Director Leon Panetta over what she was told in 2002 about interrogation techniques. The aftermath of that tit-for-tat, in which Pelosi contended that the CIA misled her and failed to tell her it was already using waterboarding and other techniques, saw Pelosi’s standing with the public take a hit in opinion polls. Pelosi now refuses to talk about the issue.
“The American people think that public safety comes before public relations,— House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) said Monday when asked about the GOP’s national security attacks. “As the president calls for a new approach on the world stage, I think millions of Americans know we still live in a dangerous world. … A minority in Congress plus the American people equals a majority. We’ve been able to prevail as a result.—
Republicans also are looking to make Democrats sweat out a tough vote on the supplemental this week, forcing Pelosi and Obama to whip anti-war Democrats into line. The GOP has called the bill’s $108 billion loan to the International Monetary Fund a “global bailout— that could get into the pockets of terrorists via countries such as Iran.
Democrats charged that Republicans are lying. They pointed out that Iran hasn’t gotten IMF funding since the Reagan administration.
Despite the GOP offensive, Democrats said they aren’t worried about losing ground.
Several Democrats pointed to a recent Democracy Corps poll showing the majority party making gains against Republicans on national security issues, although the GOP still had a narrow lead. Another Democratic aide said Republicans tried to play the national security card in 2006 and 2008, “and the American people rejected it soundly.—
With that in mind, one leadership aide said, Democrats believe the public is wise to the GOP strategy of trying to incite fear: “It’s like the boy crying wolf too many times.—