The campaign against Social Security is going so badly that longtime critics of President Bush, accustomed to seeing their efforts to point out flaws in administration initiatives brushed aside, are pinching themselves. But they shouldn't relax: if the past is any guide, the Bush administration will soon change the subject back to national security.
The political landscape today reminds me of the spring of 2002, after the big revelations of corporate fraud. Then as now, the administration was on the defensive, and Democrats expected to do well in midterm elections.
Then, suddenly, it was all Iraq, all the time, and Harken Energy and Halliburton vanished from the headlines.
I don't know which foreign threat the administration will start playing up this time, but Bush critics should be prepared for the shift. They must curb their natural inclination to focus almost exclusively on domestic issues, and challenge the administration on national security policy, too.
I say this even though many critics, myself included, would prefer to stick with the domestic issues. After all, domestic issues, particularly Social Security, are very comfortable ground for moderates and liberals. The relevant facts are all in the public domain, voters clearly oppose the administration's hard-right agenda, and Mr. Bush's attack on Social Security stumbled badly out of the gate. It's understandable, then, that critiques of the administration's national security policy have faded into the background in recent months.
But a president can always change the subject to national security if he wants to - and Mr. Bush has repeatedly shown himself willing to play the terrorism card when he is losing the debate on other issues. So it's important to point out that Mr. Bush, for all his posturing, has done a very bad job of protecting the nation - and to make that point now, rather than in the heat of the next foreign crisis.
The fact is that Mr. Bush, while willing to go to war on weak evidence, hasn't taken the task of protecting America from terrorists at all seriously.
Consider, for example, the case of chemical plants.
Just days after 9/11, many analysts identified sites that store toxic chemicals as a major terror risk, and called for new safety rules. But as The New York Times reported last fall, "after the oil and chemical industries met with Karl Rove ... the White House quietly blocked those efforts."
Nearly three and a half years after 9/11, those chemical plants are still unprotected.
Other major risks identified within days of the attack included the possibility of terrorist attacks on major ports or nuclear plants. But in the months after 9/11, the administration flatly refused to allocate the sums that members of the House and Senate from both parties thought necessary to secure these sites.
And when the administration does spend money protecting possible terrorist targets, politics, not national security, dictates where the money goes. Remember the "first responders" program that ended up spending seven times as much protecting each resident of Wyoming as it spent protecting each resident of New York?
Well, it's still happening. An audit of the Homeland Security Department's (greatly inadequate) program to protect ports found that much of the money went to unlikely locations, including six sites in landlocked Arkansas, where the department's recently resigned chief of border and transportation security is reported to be considering a run for governor.
Nor are Mr. Bush's national security failures limited to nonmilitary policy. The administration appears to be in a state of denial over the effects of the endless war in Iraq on U.S. military readiness, particularly the strains on the reserves and the National Guard.
The ultimate demonstration of Mr. Bush's true priorities was his attempt to appoint Bernard Kerik as homeland security director. Either the administration didn't bother to do even the most basic background checks, or it regarded protecting the nation from terrorists as a matter of so little importance that it didn't matter who was in charge.
My point is that Mr. Bush's critics are falling into an unnecessary trap if they focus only on domestic policies, and allow Mr. Bush to keep his undeserved reputation as someone who keeps Americans safe. National security policy should not be a refuge to which Mr. Bush can flee when his domestic agenda falls apart.
Originally published in The New York Times, 2.22.05