WASHINGTON—President Bush will speak Wednesday at the National Security Agency to defend his order to the super-secret spy center to conduct warrantless eavesdropping on Americans.
But the speech will be much more than a defense. It also will be the photo-op spearhead of a campaign to turn the controversy into a plus for Republicans by transforming the 2006 congressional elections into a referendum on the war on terrorism.
Eager to reclaim the turf where he's strongest politically, Bush and his allies are hammering away at Democrats as weak on security. That tactic worked for Republicans in 2002, when they accused Democrats of risking national security by questioning work rules in the new Homeland Security Department. It worked in 2004 as well, when Republicans ripped Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts, as indecisive on defense.
It could work again in 2006. Polls show that the American people are split evenly over warrantless eavesdropping, hardly the solid outrage that many Democrats had hoped for. And Americans still give their highest marks to the president for his work against terrorism. A new poll this week shows that it's the only issue on which Bush has the approval of even a slender majority, and another new survey shows that fighting terrorism remains the public's top priority.
"If they fight the campaign on the war on terror, that is the one issue where they beat Democrats consistently," pollster John Zogby said.
There are two important caveats, however.
One, Bush isn't as politically strong as he was in 2004, and nowhere near as powerful as in 2002.
"The climate has changed since the `02 and `04 elections," said Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "The president isn't infallible anymore. They don't enjoy the same position of strength."
Two, Democrats aren't the only ones questioning whether the government can eavesdrop on international calls to or from someone in the United States without warrants.
Those questioning the legality include Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and conservative activists who formed a group called Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, including Paul Weyrich, the chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, and David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union.
Keene said recently: "No one would deny the government the power it needs to protect us all, but when that power poses a threat to the basic rights that make our nation unique, its exercise must be carefully monitored by Congress and the courts."
He added: "This is not a partisan issue."
The White House prefers to make it a partisan issue.
Last week, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove signaled before the Republican National Committee how to frame the debate as being about spying on terrorists rather than about obeying the law or constitutional checks and balances.
"If al-Qaida is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why. Some important Democrats clearly disagree," Rove said.
Most prominent Democratic critics have said they want to spy on suspected terrorists—but with court-approved warrants. "We're prepared to eavesdrop wherever and whenever necessary in order to make America safer," Kerry said, "but we put a procedure in place to protect the constitutional rights of Americans."
The president's legal argument in defense of NSA eavesdropping may be shaky, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Recognizing that, some critics say Bush broke the law and should be the object of an impeachment inquiry. Led by Specter, its chairman, the Senate Judiciary Committee will open hearings on the eavesdropping Feb. 6.
Rather than letting the question be framed purely in legal terms, however, Bush and his loyalists depict eavesdropping as a necessary tool in the war on terrorism, and thus are trying to build a political firewall to help insulate themselves before pressure builds in Congress to challenge the White House.
In addition, the more that critics challenge the eavesdropping, the more the fight against terrorism claims the limelight, at a time when Democrats would rather be talking about corruption in Washington.
"Democrats need to be careful about how they proceed," said Brian Jones, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "If they come across as weak on national defense, an issue where the president is strong ... they will pay a price."
For the more from the president's side: www.gop.com
For more on Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances: www.checksbalances.org
For more from the Democrats: www.democrats.org
Public opinion snapshot:
"Monitoring Americans suspected of terrorist ties without court permission"
Generally right: 48 percent
Generally wrong: 47 percent
Public's top domestic priorities:
5) Social Security
8) Regulate HMOs
9) health care for uninsured
SOURCE: The Pew Research Center; a poll of 1,503 adults was conducted Jan. 4-8 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Public approval/disapproval of President Bush's handling of these issues:
Terrorism: 52 percent/44 percent
Hurricane Katrina: 41 percent/53 percent
Economy: 39 percent/56 percent
Iraq: 39 percent/58 percent
Health policy: 31 percent/60 percent
Corruption: 28 percent/62 percent
Immigration: 25 percent/62 percent.
SOURCE: The Gallup Poll; a survey of 1,006 adults was conducted Jan. 20-22 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Bush, Rove, Specter
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