WASHINGTON – The politics of terrorism has Democrats tied in knots. Each time President Bush raises fears of a possible attack, the political debate shifts from his most troublesome issue (Iraq) to one of his strongest (the war on terrorism) while Democrats fight their impulse to question the president's motives.
The advantages of incumbency were in full display Sunday, when Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search) warned of possible Al Qaeda terrorist attacks to financial institutions in New York City, Washington and Newark, N.J.
The information was obtained in the past 36 to 72 hours, officials said Sunday, increasing anxieties about a potential strike. The Bush administration let a 24-hour news cycle pass before making clear that most of the intelligence, while recently obtained, was three or four years old.
"I am concerned that every time something happens that's not good for President Bush, he plays this trump card, which is terrorism," former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean (search) said Sunday.
Similar doubts were raised privately by John Kerry's senior advisers, top Democrats in Congress and even some senior Republicans who privately questioned Ridge's timing. The announcement came three days after the close of the Democratic National Convention (search), which helped increase Kerry's terrorism-fighting poll ratings and less than two weeks after a scathing report by the Sept. 11 Commission (search).
The administration on Tuesday issued a blanket condemnation of anybody who questions the rationale behind the warnings. Ridge said the old intelligence was updated in January, but he didn't provide details to satisfy his skeptics.
"We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland of Security," he said.
One top GOP operative, who works closely with Bush's political team, said the White House appeared to overplay its hand, and voters may smell politics behind the warning. A senior U.S. intelligence official said there is no doubt that the United States is in constant danger, but he was concerned enough about the timing of the announcement to ask colleagues in a weekend meeting, "Why? Why now? Why are we raising alarms about this now?"
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution from the White House.
What kept Kerry and his campaign quiet is a more complicated matter.
Campaign officials said Kerry would like to believe that Bush is acting in the nation's interest. Even if he didn't give Bush the benefit of the doubt, there are enormous political risks to Kerry questioning the president's motives, the officials said, because a subsequent terrorist strike would make him look politically craven and shortsighted.
Criticizing the commander in chief for putting the nation on alert also wouldn't help Kerry persuade voters that he's tough enough for the job, the officials said on condition of anonymity.
The Democratic strategy is to use the terrorism warnings to raise the ante. Instead of questioning why alert levels have been increased, Kerry and his surrogates have tried to fuel doubts about what Bush has done — or failed to do — to make the country safer since Sept. 11, 2001.
If Kerry strategists are correct, the tactic both undercuts Bush's political strong suit and burnishes the Democrat's credentials as commander in chief.
"We are not going to get into a debate over whether the announcement was politically motivated, because it's clear that the dangers we face are real and that we are not as safe as we can or should be," Brooke Anderson, deputy communications director for Kerry's national security team, said Tuesday.
A day earlier, Kerry asked the president to implement the Sept. 11 Commission proposals, with an artful challenge: "If the president has a sense of urgency ... he would call the Congress back and get the job done now."
By inference, Kerry was asking voters: How serious is Bush about the terrorism warning if he would allow Congress to stay on summer vacation?
In Iowa, Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack called Ridge's warnings serious and substantial, but he said they would be "more credible if the funding were there for homeland security."
Retired Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, a Kerry supporter who was Air Force chief of staff during the first Persian Gulf War, said he did not think the administration raised the terrorism alert for political reasons.
"However," he said, "isn't it a sad fact that the question even arises?"
One question unanswered by Kerry, who received a special intelligence briefing Sunday: If he were president, would he have authorized his homeland security chief to issue the same warning as Ridge?
"Senator Kerry never comments directly or indirectly on the information he receives in intelligence briefings," replied spokeswoman Debra DeShong.