President George W. Bush advanced several strong arguments when he spent much of the last few weeks criticizing Senate inaction on his homeland security bill. The proposal to create a new Cabinet-level department has the potential to streamline U.S. intelligence gathering and establish some accountability among the helter-skelter collection of agencies currently responsible for U.S. security. Despite the bill's possible drawbacks, the importance of protecting the American people demands a greater priority than the Senate has given the proposal thus far.
The Senate's focus on other issues does not, however, translate to politicians being beholden to special interests, and Bush's comment on the stump that the Senate cares more about such interests than the security of the American people was entirely inappropriate.
Rather than focusing on the substantive policy aspects of his proposal, which might move along debate or help inform Americans of what a new department would do, the president resorted to personal attacks that help no one. Moreover, Bush's attacks questioned the basic patriotism of Senators, many of whom--from John McCain, R-Ariz., to Max Cleland, D-Ga., to John Kerry, D-Mass.--served their country heroically in war, the ultimate display of patriotism and commitment to American security. In attempting to make a policy point, the president insulted each and every one of them.
Bush has since backed away from and qualified his statements, but Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was right Thursday to demand an apology. In an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, Daschle pointed out that the president was exploiting the war on terrorism for political gain leading up to a midterm election. Daschle's defense of his honor and the honor of the Senate at large should be commended.
Personal political attacks are not new to American politics, but they are nevertheless inappropriate and counterproductive, especially for a president. But unfortunately, Americans have grown accustomed to irresponsible verbal blows from this administration. Bush and his press secretary Ari Fleischer have been quick to play the patriotism card, especially since Sept. 11. Their berating of television talk show host Bill Maher last year was only one instance of using the unpatriotic label to silence political foes. Crossing the line between the political and the personal, those tactics sour the political arena.
If Congress and the president fail to agree on a homeland security bill before the end of this session, America's leaders will have failed the people on the nation's most pressing post-Sept. 11 issue. To succeed, they must move beyond empty and insulting questions of each other's patriotism and focus instead on how to resolve their policy differences.
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