Thursday, September 11, 2008

9/11 and the election

September 10 Democrats have fought anti-terror policies from nearly the beginning.
Many Democrats, Barack Obama among them, break this subject into what they say are distinct issues -- the war in Iraq, which they oppose, and the war on terror, which "everyone" supports. Democrats also said the partisan divide was about civil liberties and "who we are."

However, this blurs the timeline and nature of their opposition. To be sure, the unpopularity of the Bush presidency and much Democratic opposition rhetoric grew out of the war's worst years from 2004 into 2007. But the war didn't start until March 2003. The most substantive political opposition started earlier, with the war on terror, not Iraq.

In November 2002, after judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review ruled in support of the Justice department's policy on wiretapping suspected terrorists, the dams of anti-Bush opposition burst. Soon-to-be House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers said, "Piece by piece, this Administration is dismantling the basic rights afforded to every American under the Constitution." The ACLU railed against "intrusive surveillance warrants."

The story and fury of this fight are familiar, but bear in mind that in 2002 Barack Obama was off in Springfield, Ill., chairing the state's Senate Health and Human Services Committee. He arrived to the Beltway terror battles in early 2005. Two years later, he announced for president.

Freshman Sen. Obama's role in the opposition to the Bush antiterror policies is hard to pin down. In his Feb. 2006 floor statement on reauthorizing the Patriot Act, he said, "This is a complex issue." Indeed. It would take a grammarian three blackboards to diagram the senator's qualifying statements to vote for the bill. Indeed, after staging a massive bonfire of Bush-centric opposition the previous year, most Democrats voted in February to reauthorize the Patriot Act. For all senators, this was a self-defining vote.

Which side was Sen. Obama on? Early this year, amid the primaries, he was among 31 senators who voted to deny telecom companies immunity for lawsuits against them for allowing taps on overseas terrorists. In July, he voted for a failed amendment to strip telecom immunity, then voted for the final bill, which included immunity.

A cynic would argue that the Democratic opposition was mainly about jamming the Bush presidency into a hole, and that they'd let a pragmatic President Obama run an antiterror policy reasonably close to George Bush's. Really? It could as easily go the other way, toward increasing the margin of national risk. The Democratic case against presidential authority over combating terror was intense.

We will listen closely in the debates to what Sens. Obama and McCain say about Islamic terror. To vote for Sen. Obama is to also vote for a Democratic Party that consumed most of the political system's available oxygen for seven years fighting a U.S. president harder than they did the perpetrators of September 11.

Political struggle is ever with us, but given the realities that 9/11 revealed (as did the terror bombings in Europe), the relentless scale of the Democratic opposition to the Bush administration's antiterror policies is hard to square.