WASHINGTON — After being tarred for a generation as the party of weakness, Democrats finally clawed their way back to political parity with a 2012 campaign slogan summing up President Barack Obama’s first term: He killed terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Now, Republicans and their allies think the Obama administration’s competence on national security should be questioned in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.
They point to the fact the government failed to stop the bombing despite warnings from the Russians about one of the Tsarnaev brothers now suspected in the attack. They raise serious questions about whether American law enforcement agencies are effective, or even in touch with one another. They’re challenging the administration’s decision to charge the surviving brother in civilian courts rather than labeling him an enemy combatant.
And written between the lines is the recurring suggestion that Obama’s Democrats are not as good, and not as tough on terrorism, as they bragged after the slaying of bin Laden.
Obama is “trying to convince everybody he’s defeated terrorism. He’s trying to convince everybody – for the advancement of his agenda – that we beat it back. Remember, this guy wants to cut the defense budget dramatically,” talk show host Rush Limbaugh said Tuesday.
Republican leaders have been somewhat more circumspect. The performance of certain agencies “raises some serious questions,” House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said Wednesday. But he added, “I don’t want to get in the business of indicting agencies or agency heads until we have all the facts.”
Republicans suddenly have the potential to win back a political edge on national security issues they enjoyed for decades.
In the 1970s, Democrats were often viewed as too accommodating to the Soviet Union. President Jimmy Carter negotiated an arms treaty with the Soviets in 1979, only to see that nation send troops to Afghanistan shortly afterward.
Ronald Reagan campaigned in 1980 on a vow to stand up to what he would dub the “Evil Empire.” When the Soviet Union collapsed shortly after he left office, Republicans were entrenched as the tough guy party.
The aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks reinforced that image. Gallup polls show that for years, Republicans enjoyed a strong advantage as the party that could do a better job of protecting the country from international terrorism.
Democrats briefly overcame the deficit as discontent with the Iraq War grew in 2007. Republicans quickly won it back as Obama, lacking national security experience, was elected president in 2008.
Only last year, after the killing of bin Laden and the toppling of the Libyan regime in 2011, did Democrats pull even on the question in polls, 45 percent to 45 percent.
Two elements suggest Republicans will find it hard to regain their national security edge, but two other factors indicate they have a chance.
The difficulty comes in overcoming the rally-round-the-flag effect after a national shock, when people tend to pull together and it becomes impolite to ascribe political motives to an administration trying to ease a crisis. Also working against Republicans is the fact that events like Boston are no longer a life-changing jolt.
Republicans have an opening.
“So far there’s not a broad belief that the government dropped the ball,” said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center.
But Republicans are persistently planting seeds of doubt.
“9/11 was all about connecting the dots,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, told Fox News on Wednesday. Yet he said the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security were apparently not sharing data.
Republicans also wonder why the administration was quick to rule out labeling Dzhokhar Tsarnaev an enemy combatant.
“I believe our nation is at war,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “The enemy is radical Islam, defined as the Taliban, al Qaida and affiliated groups.”
Enemy combatant status can be given to someone serving in the military of a nation at war with the United States. They do not necessarily get the same rights as someone charged in a domestic court. Since the 2001 attacks, it has been used for suspected terrorists. On Monday, the Justice Department charged Tsarnaev with using a weapon of mass destruction and malicious destruction of property with an explosive, both of which can lead to the death penalty or a life sentence.
Other Republicans raised questions about what the incident says about the nation’s immigration system.
“How do we ensure that people who wish to do us harm are not eligible for benefits under the immigration laws?” asked Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
“We should not proceed (with immigration measures) until we understand the specific failures of our immigration system,” urged Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., protested that some Republicans “began to exploit the Boston Marathon bombings.”
Grassley denied political motives. “I think we’re taking advantage of an opportunity where once in 25 years we deal with immigration to make sure every base is covered,” he said.
Convincing voters you’re the toughest folks in town usually works in politics. Who gets that mantle in the future is uncertain, but Republicans are methodically planting the seeds.
“It’s hard to say what could happen at this point,” said Doherty. “The story is still unfolding.”