GOP Walks Fine Line With Security Criticisms

Posted May 5, 2010 at 6:34pm

Even as Senate Republicans move to target Democrats and exploit national security on the campaign trail, they are stepping cautiously on Capitol Hill as they seek to raise the issue without appearing overtly political.

In the aftermath of the failed Times Square terrorist attack, Senate Republicans have renewed their criticism of President Barack Obama and the Democratic majority on homeland and national security issues — on which the GOP believes it holds the political advantage. But in contrast to their handling of health care, financial regulatory reform and other controversial issues, Senate Republicans are making a deliberate effort to keep the focus on the substance of their disagreements and avoid political gamesmanship.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was sharply critical of the Obama administration Wednesday during morning floor remarks, revealing the Republicans’ focus as they question the effectiveness of White House policies and attempt to undercut Democrats in the midterm elections. But a senior GOP Senate aide said not to expect McConnell to use floor time to repeatedly hammer a prepackaged political message — nor does the minority have plans to develop a unified opposition strategy.

“Individuals may have their ideas about this. But there’s been no coordinated discussion or effort to develop a plan of any kind,” Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said. “I know of no plan to have this discussed in a concerted way among the Republican Conference.”

A senior GOP Senate aide said Republicans would focus on asking “substantive policy questions” regarding the Obama administration’s homeland and national security policies and avoid any unwarranted criticism of the White House. But Senate Democrats interpret the Republicans’ actions and rhetoric differently, and they moved swiftly Wednesday to define the GOP as attempting to play politics with terrorism and national security.

“Questions have to be asked. But they begin with the conclusion that the president is wrong,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said during a news conference called in part to accuse Republicans of playing politics with Saturday’s failed terrorist attack in New York. “This issue of asking questions is absolutely sound. But asking a question implies that you’re seriously looking for an answer. I think the Republicans have the answer and they just want to make a point.”

“I don’t even see the logic to that charge,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) countered. “I can’t see how that’s playing politics because we hold fast to a point of view that we’ve long believed in.”

Brown Urges Action

Still, Senate Republicans recognize that the issues of homeland and national security and the administration’s handling of the terrorist threat do have a place in the politics of the November elections.

During Tuesday’s weekly closed-door Republican Conference lunch, Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.), who is emerging as a new voice for the Senate GOP on national security, urged his colleagues to aggressively promote alternatives to the policies offered by Democrats and the Obama administration.

Brown made clear during an interview that issues relating to homeland and national security should not be politicized, and he shied away from discussing how the matter might play in the midterm elections. But he conceded that the issues have political resonance on the campaign trail. Brown said he is still gathering information on the Times Square attack and wasn’t prepared to render a judgment on the administration’s performance.

“I don’t care if it’s a Republican or a Democrat, solving these problems is a very serious issue that affects everybody in the United States. I just want them solved. I don’t care who takes credit. I don’t care who gets the blame,” Brown said, adding about his own campaign victory over his Democratic opponent: “There was a clear contrast. I’ve always felt we should treat people who are trying to kill us — especially in these instances, the Christmas bomber in particular — as enemy combatants. … It was an important issue.”

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) was also cautious in discussing the political implications of current security issues and how they might play on Election Day. But he was more willing than some of his colleagues to acknowledge a widely held view among Republicans that homeland and national security issues stand to benefit GOP candidates in November.

Cornyn said he is advising Republican Senate candidates across the country to raise these issues and create a positive contrast between themselves and their Democratic opponents, who in some cases the NRSC has moved to paint as “rubber stamps” of the Obama administration. Cornyn charged the administration with continuing to deal with the terrorist threat as a law enforcement issue and said the GOP alternative of addressing it as an act of war appeals to voters.

“I think that’s something Joe Sixpack can understand very clearly,” Cornyn said.

Senate Republicans thus far have declined to criticize the administration or law enforcement for their actions once the failed terrorist attack on Times Square was discovered. But the GOP is criticizing other aspects of White House policy.

Cuba Prison Debate

Given that the New York terrorism attempt allegedly was the work of an American Muslim of Pakistani descent, Republicans are likely to renew their criticism of the administration’s commitment to closing the terrorist prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and moving the inmates to a U.S. facility.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s insistence that terror trials can be held safely in New York City and the White House policy on reading terror suspects their Miranda rights are also likely GOP targets for renewed attention.

In his Wednesday morning remarks on the Senate floor, McConnell touched on all of these issues, with his leadership office after the speech highlighting the Minority Leader’s criticism of Holder.

“To me it is jarring … to see the attorney general still stuck on the notion that holding these trials in downtown Manhattan is anything but a bad idea,” McConnell said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) added during a brief interview, “The only person I know who thinks we should have a trial in Manhattan is Eric Holder; nobody else.”