Can an issue on which nearly everyone agrees affect the midterm election? The controversy over U.S. port security raises that question.
When President Bush threatened to veto legislation to stop a company owned by an Arab government from operating terminals at several U.S. ports, a common reaction was, "What is he thinking?" The president's explanation was, "This is a company that's played by the rules. It has been cooperative with us, and it will send a terrible signal to friends and allies to not let this transaction go through." Bush was reassuring his international partners: The United States will stand by its commitments. But the political signal he sent to Americans sounded tone-deaf, as if he was letting business interests trump security interests.
This from an administration that successfully played the national security trump card in the 2002 and 2004 elections. Early this year, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove declared the Bush administration's intention of playing the card again this November.
Democrats see an opening. Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the administration's "credibility on national security is not the ace that they thought it was." Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., called the president's decision "just another example of the misplaced priorities and values of this administration and the Republican majority in Congress."
Republicans in Congress see political trouble ahead. They don't need a poll to gauge public sentiment on the port-security issue. Just ask any member of Congress. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said, "No one can understand it. No Democrat can understand it. No Republican can understand it." Republican Rep. Peter King of New York, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, said, "I've never seen an issue that's galvanized so many people—not even angry people, just people who can't believe what they're seeing."
A lot of Republicans balked at the ports deal. Sure, Republicans in Congress have had previous differences with Bush—for example, over the short-lived nomination of Harriet Miers to be a Supreme Court justice. But the split over U.S. port operations is different. It's about the most serious issue of all—their party's prime issue—national security.
Bush's reassurances sounded rather patronizing. "People don't need to worry about security," he said. "This deal wouldn't go forward if we were concerned about the security for the United States of America." In other words, trust me.
A few Republicans said they do. One was Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who said at a town hall meeting in his home state: "I will not make a judgment until I hear his arguments as to why he made this decision.... I will not reject out of hand the decision of the commander-in-chief."
What was that about? Possibly a cardinal rule of politics: Your base consists of the people who are with you even when you're wrong. If McCain runs for president in 2008, he needs to be at least acceptable to the Bush base. McCain was signaling not that he agreed with the president on the ports deal, but that he's loyal.
Astonishingly, when Bush said, in essence, "Trust me," many Republicans said they don't—at least not on this issue. Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee asked the president for a moratorium. Even former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas complained: "Surrendering any control of our ports to any foreign national strikes me as not only a bad idea but a national security risk."
Lawmakers are upset by Bush's apparent disdain for Congress—not just on the ports deal but on wiretapping and executive privilege. Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., a member of the Homeland Security Committee, said, "It almost smacks of arrogance, like, 'It doesn't matter what the Congress says.... We'll run roughshod.' Well, this time the Congress is saying, 'Oh, no, you won't.' "
On this issue, Republicans can score political points by defying an unpopular policy—and an unpopular president. Republicans are going to play the national security card even if President Bush won't.