Clinton Claims Superiority on Political Debate over Terrorism

Hillary Clinton has made the controversial attack of the day on her rivals for the nomination without naming anyone by name. Clinton speculated that a terrorist attack before the 2008 elections might help the Republicans:

“It’s a horrible prospect to ask yourself, ‘What if? What if?’ But if certain things happen between now and the election, particularly with respect to terrorism, that will automatically give the Republicans an advantage again, no matter how badly they have mishandled it, no matter how much more dangerous they have made the world,” Clinton told supporters in Concord.

“So I think I’m the best of the Democrats to deal with that,” she added.

The former first lady made the surprising comments as she explained to supporters that she has beaten back the GOP’s negative attacks for years, and is ready to do so again.

The underlying presumption is at least partially correct. If there is a terrorist attack there is no doubt that the Republicans will use this as an argument for why they must remain in power. That does not necessarily mean this will work.

Due to political posturing which was as masterful as their actual response to terrorism was incompetent, the Republicans won victories in 2002 and 2004 by convincing voters that they could do the most to keep the country safe. In reality, George Bush made the wrong decision virtually every step of the way, from ignoring the pre-attack warnings and recommendations from the Clinton administration for dealing with al Qaeda to ultimately attacking the wrong country. Bush both assisted bin Laden with one of his major goals of overthrowing secular middle east governments and in increasing recruitment for al Qaeda. If George Bush had been a sleeper agent for al Qaeda he couldn’t have done very much more to help bin Laden and undermine our national security short of openly taking direct military action against the United States.

While Republicans received undeserved credit for fighting terrorism in the 2002 and 2004 elections, an increasing number of voters have realized that Bush’s actions have made us less safe. While there is the possibility that some might return to voting for the Republicans due to believing their empty rhetoric on terrorism, it is also possible that even more would see another terrorist attack as a failure of Republican policies on terrorism. A second terrorist attack on their watch could doom the Republicans in 2008 as Katrina did in 2006.
Hillary Clinton is correct that it will be necessary for the Democratic candidate to beat back the Republican claims about terrorism, which is actually the case regardless of whether there is another attack. It is far from clear that Clinton is the best person to do this.

This isn’t the first time that Clinton claimed an unsubstantiated advantage over Democratic rivals on terrorism. In February she repeated right wing talking points on terrorism:

Clinton also sought to draw a contrast with some of her Democratic rivals on the issue of terrorism. “Some people may be running who may tell you that we don’t face a real threat from terrorism,” she said. “I am not one of those.”

This not only misrepresents the views of Clinton’s opponents but plays right into the right wing talking points. Clinton also played into the right wing talking points when she accepted the claims from the right that John Kerry’s botched joke about George Bush getting us stuck in Iraq was an attack on the troops.

With this history of playing into right wing talking points, it is far from clear why Clinton might be the best Democrat to face the right should there be another terrorist attack. Her assumption that such an attack would benefit the Republicans can be taken as yet another example of playing into their talking points.

Clinton would face yet another obstacle in taking on the Republicans over terrorism in light of her previous support for the war. We saw John Kerry struggle with this in 2004 following his vote in favor of the Iraq War Resolution. Even Kerry’s many public statements advising Bush against going to war did not prevent the Republicans from portraying him as a flip flopper by distorting the meaning of the IWR. Clinton, lacking Kerry’s track record of opposing the war before it began, would have an ever harder job of credibly attacking the full Bush foreign policy.

Should the 2008 election come down to a battle over who is more qualified to handle terrorism, regardless of whether there is another attack, Democrats would be best off with a candidate who opposed Bush’s policy from the start. This leaves Barack Obama as the strongest of the major candidates, and also provides an argument for Al Gore should he decide to enter the race. Even Bill Richardson would have an advantage over Clinton in light of his foreign policy experience. Clinton has no argument beyond her claims of being more experienced in attacking the right wing noise machine but, as I note above, her record has been imperfect in this battle.

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