LAYING DOWN THE MARKER…. Richard Clarke, the chief counterterrorism adviser on the U.S. National Security Council for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, makes note today of what Republicans are doing to the public discourse related to national security.

Recent months have seen the party out of power picking fights over the conduct of our efforts against Al Qaeda, often with total disregard to the facts and frequently blowing issues totally out of proportion, while ignoring the more important challenges we face in defeating terrorists. […]

It has been hard to escape the conclusion that the goal of these critics is to discredit the President’s handling of terrorism for political advantage, whether or not the administration is actually doing a good job. Indeed, they seem to be posturing themselves simply so that if there is a successful terrorist attack on America, they can say “I told you Obama doesn’t know how to fight Al Qaeda.”

Clarke added that the Republican/Fox News attack dogs don’t “bother to learn the facts” and are “wrong morally to attempt to make political gain on the damage inflicted by terrorism.” If an attack occurs, “let us hope the American people will reject any attempt to make it a partisan issue. It is not conduct worthy of real patriots.”

This is certainly true, and it’s also been a political dynamic playing out for over a year.

Just 48 hours after President Obama’s inauguration, Marc Thiessen, George W. Bush’s former chief speechwriter, argued, “If Obama weakens any of the defenses Bush put in place and terrorists strike our country again, Americans will hold Obama responsible — and the Democratic Party could find itself unelectable for a generation.” Jason Zengerle noted at the time, “You almost get the sense guys like Thiessen are hoping for an attack so that they can blame Obama when it happens.”

That was 13 months ago, and it’s only gotten worse. In May, after a loathsome speech by Dick Cheney, Jeffrey Toobin explained:

Even worse than Cheney’s distortions was the political agenda behind them. The speech was, as politicians say, a marker — a warning to the new Administration…. Cheney’s all but explicit message was that the blame for any new attack against American people or interests would be laid not on the terrorists, or on the worldwide climate of anti-Americanism created by the Bush-Cheney Administration, but on Barack Obama.

For many months after the 9/11 attacks, Democrats refrained from engaging in the blame game with the Bush Administration. Cheney’s speech makes it clear that, should terrorists strike again, Republicans may not respond in kind.

This generally goes unsaid, but it’s a key aspect of the Republican crusade — if something horrible happens, we’re not supposed to blame the team that left a mess for Obama to clean up, we’re supposed to blame Obama himself. If only the president kept torturing people like Cheney wanted, we’d all remain safe indefinitely.

Should tragedy strike, a few too many on the right will want to tear this country apart, and they’ve been laying the groundwork for quite a while.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.