This should have been a great week for Democrats. President G.W. Bush let the light of day shine on what has been a hermetically sealed-shut win for the GOP in 2004. National Security, or call it personal security, has been the cornerstone of Bush’s presidency.

Incredibly, on the same day, the Bush White House finally proved that when it comes to spending domestic bucks to protect us at home, its money is not where its mouth is. On July 30, the president warned that al-Qaida remains “a real threat” against airlines. “We have got some data that includes that they would like to use flights,” President Bush declared. “International flights, for example.” Fair enough. The president is merely stating what every American knows to be true.

But then, within a few hours, Bush’s Transportation Safety Administration publicly announces its intention to cut $104 million dollars to help offset a budget shortfall, raising the possibility that the number of air marshals will be reduced. And this occurs at the same time that Bush is defending his enormous tax giveaway. (Since many people who fly also benefit from the tax cut, maybe the next time they’re aloft, they can count their hefty tax refunds while they eye the guy sitting next to them, wondering when he’s going to light his shoe or lunge for the cockpit.)

If Bush insists on being crazy – cutting the webbing out of the one safety net the flying public still believes in – then the Democrats, for the good of the country, ought to pounce. Moreover, even if a case could be made for cutting back air marshals, it sure isn’t something I’d announce publicly. The effect could be like sending an engraved invitation to al-Qaida.

And if the Bush administration is depending on the pilots with guns to protect our flights (by the way, Bush rejected the idea of arming pilots until the NRA got involved), they’d better think again. Today, only 44 pilots are qualified to pack heat. If the Bush administration was serious about aviation security, the FAA would have approved United Airlines’ TASERS, which have been sitting in mothballs for over a year.

President Bush may believe that he’s gotten a free ride because of a swift victory in Iraq. Win the war, and forget about everything else. But even a victory in Iraq before 9-11 would not have saved the people murdered in the Twin Towers or at the Pentagon. Only air marshals could have helped them.

As long as President Bush dominates the security issue, the Democrats don’t have a prayer. I say this in spite of the fact that polls seem to show that national security ranks below the issues of education, health care and employment security. Nevertheless, Bush’s popularity remains high and few Democrats now running for president have thus far demonstrated the gravitas to match him. I’m guessing there is a reason lurking behind these polls – people somehow feel “safe” with this administration.

Why the Democratic Party – the party of Woodrow Wilson who led this country to victory in World War I, and Franklin Roosevelt, who led the largest wartime coalition in history to victory in World War II – should forfeit the security issue to the Republicans is a puzzle. Some Democrats opposed the Iraq invasion, including me. But unlike some Democrats, I’ve moved on – the war’s over, we won and the bottom line is to take matters from today, not yesterday. And today’s matters involve the security of this nation.

As a result, I think the Democrats need to tighten their grip on the entire domestic-security issue. The party platform needs to call for an increase in domestic-security spending that will rival, in today’s dollars, any New Deal program of the 1930s. Simply reorganizing a bunch of existing departments into something new (“Homeland Security”) is old wine in new bottles, And putting a handsome haircut in as its boss (Tom Ridge) doesn’t get the country to where it needs to be.

As betrayed by Bush’s moves this week, the issue is a simple one: Do you want a tax cut or do you want to maximize your chances of safely landing in an airplane? Safely shopping in a mall? Or going to see the Red Sox play the Yankees, safely?

There is no greater issue than this, and the Democrats need to make it their own. Karl Rove can dance on the head of as many pins as he likes, but if the public questions – as they should – whether this administration is doing all that common sense dictates should be done to protect them, then dancing, spin and polls won’t mean a thing.

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