It was a new low, even for Dick Cheney, when he said that Ned Lamont's win over Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut senatorial primary would encourage "al-Qaida types." Cheney's timing was especially galling given the massive terrorism scare the next day, when British intelligence purportedly foiled a plot to blow up U.S. aircraft and kill thousands. Cheney knew what was coming. His comments were calculated for maximum effect.
In 2004, the Republicans ran on 9/11 and won, with dark predictions of mushroom clouds and dirty bombs. This year, as the 2006 midterms approach, they are again hoping to scare up enough votes to hold onto majorities in Congress. And once again, they are not above associating Democrats - indeed, any critics of the administration's disastrous policies in Iraq - with al-Qaida.
The only question is whether the vote-Republican-or-die strategy will work this time. After all, 60% of the American public now thinks the war in Iraq was a mistake. And the continuing stream of revelations about the massive security failures that led to 9/11 don't make the Republicans look like such great protectors. Polls show they're no longer trusted more than the Dems on matters of national security.
Still, you get the feeling that the worse things look in terms of security - the more terrorist alerts, the more consolidated hatred of the United States in the Arab world - the better it is for the Republicans who are making this mess. It defies logic: Many a Washington pundit is warning that Democrats who dare to criticize this administration risk alienating voters and being pegged as giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
The party that has been out of power since before 9/11 - and, more absurdly, Ned Lamont, whose only prior political experience was a stint on the town board in Greenwich, Conn. - is somehow blamed for an increased terrorist threat. Meanwhile, the party that controls all branches of the federal government, that is leading us off a cliff in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, that failed to protect us from the terrorist attacks of 9/11, is seen as our only legitimate protector.
Fears that the Democrats will lose the midterm elections because of the anti-war left are based on this theory. But is this theory correct?
Without any empirical evidence, I sense that the latest GOP-issued terror alert is different. For one thing, we Americans are now accustomed to living in a general climate of insecurity. In part because of the Bush team's constant invocation of the War on Terror, and a seemingly endless battle against an amorphous threat, most of us don't expect to start feeling safe again anytime soon.
Clearly, we haven't become safer since 9/11, despite the president's assurances. The Republicans can't have it both ways: constantly telling us how nervous we should be, while at the same time insisting they have made us safer. They have only themselves to blame for public cynicism about the state of our national security.
On rational argument, the Republicans are simply losing. Iraq is a mess. The idea that fighting terrorists there keeps us safe at home is defied by terrorists like the tube bombers in England who invoke Iraq as their reason for turning to Islamic radicalism. The images on Arab television of civilian dead in Baghdad, Beirut and Gaza, coupled with Condoleeza Rice's quotes about the "birth pangs of a new Middle East," are turning into a giant recruiting poster for anti-American militants.
Americans may like toughness and patriotic rhetoric, but being led into an actual global war is not an appealing prospect.
Still, there is the question of visceral, emotional fear and its effects in the voting booth.
Just as anti-American sentiment is stoked by bombs dropping on civilians in Iraq and, with American consent, in Lebanon, fear of terrorist attacks triggers a strong defensive, fearful response here in the United States.
One of the Bush administration's great blunders in Iraq was to underestimate the degree to which a people being bombed would direct rage against the bombers, rather than, in a complex calculus, blaming the leaders on their own side for bringing the bombing upon them.
Likewise, if there is another massive attack inside the United States, sheer terror might consolidate support for our bellicose president and his Republican supporters.
The good news is, we still have enough distance to think. As lousy as it is to contemplate terrorist threats, Americans are not experiencing war here at home. We have the luxury of taking the long view. Common sense says that we need to get off this speeding train toward an increasingly violent and dangerous world. There's reason to hope we can still do that.
RUTH CONNIFF IS THE POLITICAL EDITOR OF THE PROGRESSIVE MAGAZINE.