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State of the Union: The Takeaway

If there was any doubt that Republicans plan to make the 2006 midterm elections a referendum on national security, President Bush put that to rest in his State of the Union speech last night.

"In a time of testing we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders," he said. "If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our shores."

That comment -- made in the ninth paragraph of his address -- set the -- at times -- combative tone of what was to come.

On Iraq, Bush issued a stinging rebuke to critics -- a group primarily but not solely comprised of Democrats -- suggesting that their negative comments regarding the aftermath of the war were more politically than policy driven.

"There is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure," Bush said. "Hindsight alone is not wisdom, and second-guessing is not a strategy."  The remark brought one of the loudest cheers of the night from the Republican side and, for the most part, silence from the Democrats -- the most poignant illustration of just how divided the two parties are on Iraq.

Bush was similarly confrontational on the domestic spying program, insisting that it is necessary to avoid a repeat of Sept. 11, 2001. "The terrorist surveillance program has helped prevent terrorist attacks," he said. "It remains essential to the security of America."

While Bush's speech included plenty of domestic policy items (energy independence, increased emphasis on math and sciences in childhood education etc.), the elements he clearly was most animated about came during the "security" portion of the address.

Bush's words on Tuesday night echoed an address delivered by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove several weeks ago at the Republican National Committee winter meeting. In it, Rove offered several lines that summed up the foundation of Bush's speech last night:  "Republicans have a post-Sept. 11 worldview and many Democrats have a pre-Sept. 11 worldview," Rove said. "That doesn't make them unpatriotic, not at all. But it does make them wrong -- deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong."

The "security strategy" has worked before for Republicans -- most notably in 2002 when party strategists charged that Democrats were blocking legislation to create the Department of Homeland Security, explicitly saying the Dems were unwilling to protect the country against future terrorist attacks. Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia was one Democratic incumbent who fell largely as a result of this GOP strategy despite his credentials as Vietnam Veteran who had lost three limbs in the conflict. (Democrats, to be fair, insisted they were not trying to block the homeland security legislation, just that they wanted to ensure that employees of the new department could be unionized.)

Unlike 2002, however, President Bush is no longer riding high in public opinion polls.  And while the American public remains nervous about the possibility of another terrorist attack, pocketbook concerns have become more important to voters as the U.S. has not had a major domestic terrorist incident in the years since Sept. 11.

How do Democrats combat the GOP "security strategy"?  It remains to be seen, but if Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine's response to the State of the Union is a marker, expect to hear the phrase "there's a better way" over and over again in the coming months. 

Kaine offered a preview of a Democratic agenda built on reform of the government to ensure that it delivers for the American people. As for the security question specifically, Kaine said: "Our commitment to winning the war on terror compels us to ask this question: Are the president's policies the best way to win this war?"

The answer to that question is likely to be what the midterm elections turn on.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 1, 2006; 2:29 PM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party , Republican Party  
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