A tale of two tones

A TALE OF TWO TONES…. Not long after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a variety of Democratic lawmakers proposed creating the Department of Homeland Security. George W. Bush, at least initially, balked, fearing a cabinet agency would lead to more oversight.

In time, Bush reversed course, and embraced the idea. But when it came to labor laws and the new DHS, the White House and the Democratic Senate majority were on opposite sites. As the dispute intensified, Bush ultimately gave a speech on Sept. 23, 2002, insisting, “The Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people.”

The remarks are perhaps best remembered for prompting then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), infuriated by the president’s accusation, to just about blow a gasket.

Eight years later, Dana Milbank reflects on the incident while noting that it’s Republicans who are “blocking a Senate vote on a treaty with Russia that is critical to securing loose nukes and keeping Iran from gaining the bomb.”

For Democrats, the opposition’s gamesmanship with security should present an opportunity. Republicans seem to have entered a post-post-9/11 era, in which national security is no longer a higher priority than their interest in undermining President Obama. There’s no need to resort to the demagoguery once used against Democrats, but neither would it hurt the White House and congressional Democrats to point out that their opponents are trying to weaken Americans’ security. […]

Let’s start with START, the proposed nuclear pact with Russia that Senate Republicans such as Jon Kyl (Ariz.) are attempting to derail, at least until the next Congress. Since the expiration of the previous START treaty last December, there have been no U.S. inspectors in Russia to keep an eye on the country’s thousands of nuclear warheads. If the Senate doesn’t come up with the 67 votes needed for ratification, says Travis Sharp of the Center for a New American Security, there’s a risk Russia will retaliate by removing its logistical support for the U.S. war in Afghanistan, abandoning its cooperation in preventing nuclear proliferation, and thwarting U.S. efforts to keep Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. […]

To borrow Bush’s phrase, are Republicans not interested in the security of the American people?

Milbank suggests if the situations were reversed, and Democrats were blocking a nuclear arms treaty negotiated by Bush, the Republican president would not only be questioning Dems’ motives, but Republicans “would no doubt be running ads juxtaposing Democrats with Osama bin Laden, or alleging, as they did then, that Democrats are giving ‘comfort to America’s enemies.'”

That isn’t happening, obviously. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that the Obama White House and Democrats in general just don’t play the game this way. But the other part of this is that it wouldn’t necessarily have the same kind of impact — in 2002, national security was arguably the preeminent issue of the day. In 2010, three years after the start of the Great Recession, the economy is not only paramount, but most Americans probably haven’t heard much, if anything, about New START or Republican tactics on the issue. If Obama said Republicans “aren’t interested in the security of the American people,” few would have any idea what he was referring to.

And so we hear a very different tone. Eight years ago, Bush said Democrats don’t care if we live or die. Yesterday, President Obama said of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), “I believe that Senator Kyl wants a safe and secure America, just like I do, and is well-motivated.” Obama added, “Senator Kyl has never said to me that he does not want to see START ratified. … What he said is, is that he just felt like there wasn’t enough time to get it done in the lame duck. And I take him at his word.”

That’s a degree of graciousness Kyl almost certainly doesn’t deserve, and one Bush never even considered.