George W. Bush made it clear last night in his State of the Union Address that he will ask the American people to re-elect him because "the world is changing for the better." The aggressive American response to the 9/11 attacks has not only led to the punishment of the terrorists and the surprisingly successful protection of the homeland so far, it has liberated two tortured nations and begun the process of bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East.
The humiliation of Howard Dean in Iowa on Monday night is a powerful indication that many reasonable Democratic voters don't want to conduct the 2004 election as a referendum on the president's handling of the war in Iraq and the War on Terror. They understand that such a battle might be nothing more than an act of ideological suicide.
Still, if John Kerry or John Edwards or Wesley Clark does prevail in Dean's stead, he will still have to make a case that as president he will do a better job keeping America safe and secure. And last night the president removed a hidden arrow from his quiver and shot it straight at them.
That arrow is called the Patriot Act - the legislation passed by Congress in the fall of 2001 that expanded the ability of domestic law-enforcement to fight the War on Terror.
Democrats running for president, particularly Kerry, have attacked the president for not doing enough to protect the homeland. And yet they have been attacking the Patriot Act - which is the key domestic component of the War on Terror - for being too draconian.
They all describe it as a frightening assault on civil liberties and so on, and act as though it simply sprang full-grown and unchecked from the brain of John Ashcroft. In fact, the Patriot Act passed the U.S. Senate by a margin of, get this, 98 to 1 - including the "yea" votes of Sens. Kerry and Edwards. And make no mistake: They have done so because the leftist Democratic base has demanded it of them.
What the Democratic Left finds appealing, the American mainstream voter may find absolutely appalling. The criticism of the Patriot Act runs the risk of reinforcing the morally unappealing image of the Democratic Party of the 1980s: the party that was both hostile to law enforcement and weak on national defense.
We now know, from Bush's speech, that he's going to make the Patriot Act a major issue in the campaign. He brought it up early and dedicated a long paragraph to it.
"Inside the United States, where the war began, we must continue to give homeland security and law enforcement personnel every tool they need to defend us. And one of those essential tools is the Patriot Act, which allows federal law enforcement to better share information, to track terrorists, to disrupt their cells and to seize their assets," the president said. "Key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire next year. The terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule. Our law enforcement needs this vital legislation to protect our citizens. You need to renew the Patriot Act."
This was an unexpected and fascinating bit of political theater. Democrats have talked themselves into believing that the president will be on the defensive to some degree this year because the situation in Iraq is not yet stable and the weapons of mass destruction have not been discovered.
But they have been speaking to an echo chamber. They have yet to take into account that the president and his people will have things to say about them - about their weird flip-flopping and the way they seemed to pick up and discard positions throughout 2003 in a desperate attempt to appeal to Democratic constituencies that seemed to have parted company with all reason.
The non-Deans may not carry his anti-war, Bush-hating, screeching-psycho baggage, but they have said a great many things and taken a great many contradictory positions they are going to have to account for.
Democrats have grown comfortable in their self-righteous denunciations of the Patriot Act because it has largely gone undefended except by Attorney General John Ashcroft, who has become the liberals' whipping boy as a result.
Their discomfort begins today.