IN SEARCH OF THE MISSILE GAP

While more legally-minded types bicker over the legitimacy of the Bush wiretapping, it’s worth pointing out that the odds of this fracas redounding to the Democrats’ long-term benefit are somewhere between slim and none. Let’s suppose, for the sake or argument, that John Dean is right, and Bush just became “the first President to admit to an impeachable offense.” The Democrats aren’t going to try impeaching him for it – they aren’t that stupid, are they? – so all that the offense does, in the public mind, is add to the existing perception of the GOP as the party that sometimes goes too far and skirts the law in the pursuit of national security objectives. And it’s almost always better to be tagged as “the party that might go too far” than as “the party that won’t go far enough” – which is how the Democrats are perceived these days. This explains why the GOP can weather controversy after controversy, from Iran-Contra down through Iraq War intelligence and the secret prisons and CIA waterboarding, and still hang on to the public trust on foreign affairs – because in each case, they’re perceived as having gone too far with good intentions, 24-style, and in an arena that most Americans perceive as being slightly outside the law anyway.

One way for the Dems to change this landscape, I suppose, would be to find a Watergate-style case where Republicans go too far and break the law for obvious personal or political advantage and nothing else. In this sense, the Michael Moore crowd is on to something with their Halliburton conspiracy-mongering: If you want to turn Americans against the GOP, you don’t want to convince them that Bush manipulated intelligence to oversell the threat posed by Saddam Hussein; you want to convince them that he manipulated intelligence to make Dick Cheney or some Texas oil companies richer. But absent convincing evidence of that level of chicanery – and no, the script of Syriana doesn’t count – the Democrats have to find a non-scandal-related way to capture the label of “the party that does too much,” ideally by finding a place where the GOP is doing way too little and hammering away at it.

This is what John Kerry tried to do during the campaign, of course, but I think his arguments – that we need to spend more money on defense, that the Iraq War is making terrorism more likely – were way too general to gain traction. The Dems need something specific, something easy to understand, something that captures the imagination of the public – something like JFK’s “missile gap.” (As the JFK experience shows, it doesn’t even have to be real.)

And then, once there’s a Democratic President in the White House, his first act should be to have his trusted aides break several laws in the pursuit of al-Qaeda – just to show he means business. Either that, or make Jack Bauer his Secretary of Defense.

-posted by Ross

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