Monday, July 11, 2005

No Surprise, New Terror Attack Quickly Is Grist of Politics

The New York Times

No Surprise, New Terror Attack Quickly Is Grist of Politics

WASHINGTON — Just hours after last week's terrorist bombings in London, David Sirota, a liberal blogger, issued a missive titled "Iraq, London and America's Homeland Insecurity" - a pointed critique of President Bush's assertion that the United States is fighting terrorists overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan so that it does not have to face them at home.

"The awful bombing in London today," Mr. Sirota wrote, "shows just how silly, dangerous, short-sighted and truly dishonest this line of reasoning really is."

While Mr. Sirota was arguing that Mr. Bush had neglected homeland security at the expense of the war in Iraq, Representative Tom DeLay, the House Republican leader, issued a statement with an entirely different take on the London attacks. "Today, we stand together in solidarity against terror," he said. "One day soon we will stand together in victory over it."

Terrorist attacks, as these divergent responses suggest, do not occur in a political vacuum. With recent polls showing a dip in public support for the way Mr. Bush is handling the war in Iraq - and to a lesser extent, the war on terror - and Congress returning Monday from a weeklong recess, the bombings in London are sure to have ripple effects for politicians on this side of the Atlantic.

Those effects may be felt in the Capitol as soon as Monday, when the Senate takes up a homeland security spending bill. Democrats are already arguing that the London bombings suggest a need for more spending on transit security.

The bombings are also altering the debate over American treatment of foreign detainees, and the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, the broad anti-terrorism law passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The House has already voted to strip the Patriot Act of a provision making it easier for investigators to obtain records from libraries and bookstores. The London bombings could force a rethinking of that move, as conservatives argue that it is essential to have strong laws protecting against terrorism.

"The London attacks, like the train bombings last year in Madrid, required a high degree of coordination and detail, suggesting a plot planned well in advance," wrote the editorial page of The Washington Times, the capital's conservative newspaper. "And yet here we are arguing whether to dismantle key provisions in the Patriot Act. Our hope is that July 7 will return Washington to the focus it had following September 11. If they can hit them there, they can hit us here."

If any politician benefits from the attacks, in the short term, Democrats and Republicans agree, it will be President Bush, who won election partly because Americans felt he would do a better job of protecting them against terrorism than his Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. Despite Mr. Sirota's critique, elected Democrats are unlikely to cite the London bombings to fault the White House right now, for fear of seeming craven in the aftermath of a tragedy.

Republicans, meanwhile, say the bombings will only serve to remind Americans why they returned the president to the White House. "From the standpoint of who do you trust to keep you safe and secure, I think the American people, by and large, know that this president doesn't cow to terrorists," said Scott Howell, a Republican media consultant, adding, "Safety and security jumps right back up in people's minds when an event like this occurs."

Polls show that Mr. Bush's posture against terrorism remains his primary strength. A CNN/Gallup poll, released late last month, found that while Mr. Bush's approval rating on the war in Iraq was 40 percent, his approval rating on handling terrorism was 55 percent.

Still, Mr. Bush's numbers appear to have slipped over time. A survey in May by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found 57 percent approved of the way Mr. Bush was handling the war on terror, down from 62 percent in January. On Iraq, 37 percent approved, down from 45 percent in January.

Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster, said the numbers suggest a growing sense of unease that will increase over the long term. "Rather than being made to feel more safe and secure," Mr. Schoen said, "what I suspect will happen is that people will come to believe that we are facing a grave challenge that, however well meaning, the president has not successfully confronted."

Democrats will try to make that point in the context of the rail security debate this week.

"This shows that we have to fight a two-front war on terror," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York. "One is a war overseas - whatever people's opinion is on that - but the other is a war on terror here at home. I think there is a general feeling and consensus that the administration is not paying attention to the second front."

That consensus, though, does not extend to Republicans, and certainly not the White House. In the prepared text of his radio address for Saturday, Mr. Bush said federal, state and local officials "are doing everything possible" to prevent another attack. As to the criticism raised by Mr. Sirota, Mr. Bush was not backing down. "We will stay on the offense," the president's text read, "fighting the terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them at home."