Democratic leadership in Congress is pledging to make Republican votes against key national security and defense funding measures a feature in the upcoming congressional elections, following the botched Christmas Day terrorist attack aboard a Detroit-bound airliner.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-M.D.) told the Huffington Post on Wednesday that it was the committee's duty to ensure that, come 2010, the American people are aware that House Republicans opposed a Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill that included funding for airport security.
The 2010 appropriations bill contained Transportation Security Administration funding for explosives detection systems and other security measures -- it was opposed by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) among others.
"It is not so much that the DCCC will be holding people accountable but the American people will be holding people accountable. They deserve to have that info and we will make sure they have it," Van Hollen said, in an interview that took place Wednesday afternoon. "And I'm assuming our Republican colleagues will have an opportunity to explain why they voted against additional resources for homeland security."
The same dynamic would hold true in the Senate, where a procedural play by Republican senators to derail health care reform by nearly killing a separate bill to fund defense operations would be held against them, predicted Van Hollen predicted.
"I think we are going to be very interested in the rationale for those votes," said the Maryland Democrat. "I mean in the Senate you have the situation where Republicans were delaying a vote on the defense appropriations bill for the purpose of slowing down health care reform and I think the American people don't want our national security to be held hostage to Republican procedural gamesmanship on health care."
The electoral foreshadowing on Van Hollen's part is another illustration of how often politics is intertwined with national security issues. Republicans went on the offensive in the days following the botched airliner attack, accusing the administration of being soft on terror and launching fundraising appeals based on similar premises. All of which produced an angry (if not belated) response from Democrats, who decried the politicization of a nearly catastrophic incident.
"I think it will backfire," Van Hollen said. "What you are seeing now is that the House and the Senate campaign committees trying to exploit an attempted terrorist attack, to try and raise money off an attempt to blow an airplane out of the sky... I think the American people ought to be appalled by that."
The bet from the DCCC's perspective is that campaigning on issues of national security will be considered more palatable than fundraising off a potential terrorist attack. There certainly is a long-standing precedent for making votes on defense and homeland security funding an electoral issue (see: Bush vs. Kerry, 2004). And for many Democrats, the party's adoption of an offensive posture on such issues is long overdue.
"The Democrats have been strong on national security," Van Hollen said, pushing back against a persistent refrain that the party often fails to match Republican machismo on topics like foreign policy and defense. "In fact what we have said is we have to wage a vigorous battle and smart battle on these national security issues which is why both President Obama in the campaign and most Democrats in Congress have pointed out that the Bush administration's decision to shift resources away from the fight in Afghanistan and to Iraq was a big mistake. We have lost years in the fight against al Qaeda because of that negligent decision."
Asked specifically to respond to the remarks of former Vice President Dick Cheney -- who accused Obama of pretending the country was not at war with terrorism -- Van Hollen once again blamed the previous administration for the weakening of American security.
"It's completely hypocritical [for Cheney to make these charges]," he said, "given the fact that the Bush-Cheney team took their eye off the ball when it came to al Qaeda and diverted resources and attention to Iraq where al Qaeda never poised a threat and the fact is, just in general, we are continuing to have to deal with the failure of the Bush-Cheney team to finish the job when it comes to the fight against al Qaeda."