The Dubai ports debacle, which to many people signaled for the first time the unseriousness of the administration with regard to national security, is the Democrat’s opportunity to finally change the context of the national security debate. Instead of playing “I’m tough too,” Democrats should talk about national security in terms of competence.

In addition to a quick review of the fact that Democrats, when they’ve been in charge of military engagement, have cared about having a plan, and that one of John Kerry’s main concerns was, yes indeed, port security, they should propose a few simple to understand, highly visible initiatives geared toward making people actually feel safer. Here’s one idea: DHS will coordinate threat assessment teams composed of agents from the FBI, NRC, CDC, etc., who will be dispatched to various “high priority” sites around the country: a water purification plant in Atlanta, for example, or a vulnerable but important rail switching station in Kansas, or one of the unguarded nuclear sites we keep reading about, etc. Whenever one of these teams comes into town, there will be local coverage, which is what we really want: “DHS was right here in Ashtabula today, making sure that our little ol’ chemical waste facility isn’t vulnerable to terrorism.” This is the kind of thing that people remember and care about. If what the teams propose is funded and put into effect, great, Democrats take credit for the idea. If not, then they have a long list up things the administration should have done, but didn’t. If you don’t like this idea, come up with another; it doesn’t really matter, as long as it’s clear and visible.

(An aside: people often dismiss plans or ideas with, “But the Republicans will just argue X….” The key in these debates, however, is that people stop paying attention pretty quickly, and as long as you have a reply to “X,” the debate will be sufficiently muddled that the original proposal will remain salient. So if the Republicans were to say that the Democrats are so out of touch that they don’t even realize that threat assessments are happening all the time, the response should be, “Well, what about sites A, B, C, D and E, all of which are vulnerable?” If the Republicans dismiss the plan as an unconscionable use of federal agents for show, the response should be that since sites A, B, C, D and E are all vulnerable, people should be able to see their government at work, and hold agencies accountable, rather than being satisfied with “trust us.” (You might also mention Bush’s own use of emergency personnel during photo ops for Katrina.) You get the idea. “Republicans will just say X” should only be dispositive if you also think “And I don’t have a good answer to that.”)

The catchphrase for the Democratic emphasis on competence should be “let’s do what works.” That signals both “enough with the fancy words and crappy outcomes” as well as “enough with the partisan and ideological bickering, we care about results.” It also drives home the point that being “tough” doesn’t matter if your toughness doesn’t work. Facts are on our side, we should emphasize them.

The usual objection when anyone says that Democrats should emphasize competence is “Dukakis.” But that was a special, or especially bad case. Dukakis was geeky and from Massachusetts, but there’s no reason that “let’s do what works” can’t be folksy and no-nonsense: “Some people want to save the whole world or tell you what’s right and what’s wrong, I just want to do what works.”