London Terror Threat Plays into U.S. Politics

The Bush administration's political reaction to the alleged terrorist plot in London was directed, in part, at the upcoming mid-term elections in Congress.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Joining us now from Washington is NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: In response to the alleged terrorist plot unveiled in Britain last week, the U.S. chief of Homeland Security took to the airwaves yesterday, and Michael Chertoff defended some of the most controversial Bush administration programs.

ROBERTS: That's right. He argued that the British ability to detect the plot was because their laws are nimble. And he defended the Bush administration policies of wiretapping suspected terrorist without a warrant and the program that tracks financial transfers. Both, as you know, have come under a good deal of criticism both from Democrats and some Republicans.

The truth is that this incident in Great Britain is not only an opportunity for the administration to defend itself against some unpopular policies, but also to make some political points in the case against terrorism. And that has been - I mean, terrorism has been the issue really that the Bush presidency and the Republicans have won on in the last two elections.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course, this was a plot - or suspected plot - in England, cracked by British intelligence agents. Given the president's low standing in public opinion polls, is this likely to make a difference in elections here at home?

ROBERTS: Hard to say, particularly this far out from the election. But the Republicans, since the plot has been revealed, have been all over the place saying that the Democrats are not able to protect you against something like this. And, of course, that has worked, as I say, in the past couple of elections.

Newsweek magazine did come out with a poll this weekend after the suspects were arrested, and in it the president's approval of handling homeland security is up to 55 percent approval. That's up 11 points over the last time that question was asked in May. And so I think that it is, at least temporarily, helping Republicans and the president.

And you have the vice president saying that the victory of Ned Lamont over Joe Lieberman in Connecticut last Tuesday shows that al-Qaida types who want to break the will of the American people is encouraged by that victory. Lieberman himself said that Lamont's call for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq would be taken as a tremendous victory by terrorists.

So there is an attempt to turn all of this into a political plus here at home for various candidates.

MONTAGNE: Well, Ned Lamont, Connecticut Democratic primary winner, of course, also hit the airwaves yesterday. Do you think he did himself any good?

ROBERTS: Certainly. I think he did himself good with Democratic voters tying Lieberman to Cheney, scaring off Democrats and independents in his own race, expressing shock that anyone would attempt to turn the terrorist plot into political advantage.

But the truth is it probably can be a political advantage for the Republicans, as I said. And what Lamont represents could turn out to be a big problem for Democrats. It has been a problem for the Democrats in the past to have what seems to be a weakness on national defense, and Republicans are hoping to exploit that.

MONTAGNE: Well, yeah. And, Cokie, do they have reason to be optimistic for the elections in November given the polls?

ROBERTS: Well, the Democrats certainly do. That same Newsweek poll - 53 percent say they want Democrats to take over Congress compared to 34 percent saying Republicans hold it. The president's approval rating stays low. And, most important, two thirds say that the country is headed in the wrong direction, which is always a bad sign for incumbents.

So, yes, Democrats have reason to be optimistic. But what the events of the last week show is that events can determine what happens in elections right up to the last minute, and that is something for both parties to fear.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts.

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