'War on Terror,' Iraq War Vie for Attention The "War on Terror" and the war in Iraq are competing for attention in the nation's capital and among American voters ahead of the mid-term elections. But who's winning the rhetorical war?

'War on Terror,' Iraq War Vie for Attention

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Mike Pesca.


I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, the big business of sign twirlers or, as they're known in the business, human directionals.

PESCA: But first, with a little over five weeks to go before Election Day, the question is being put to voters, which political party will make you safer?

BRAND: The week started with former President Bill Clinton angrily defending his efforts in going after Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. In an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News, Clinton went on to accuse the Bush White House of not doing enough in the months before 9/11.

(Soundbite of Fox broadcast)

Mr. CHRIS WALLACE (Fox News): Do you think you did enough, sir?

Former President BILL CLINTON: No, because I didn't get him.

Mr. WALLACE: Right.

President CLINTON: But at least I tried. That's the difference in me and some, including all the right-wingers who are attacking me now. They ridiculed me for trying. They had eight months to try, they did not try. I tried. So I tried and failed.

PESCA: Joining us now to talk about the week in politics is NPR's senior correspondent and regular DAY TO DAY contributor Juan Williams. Hi, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Hi, Mike. Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: Hi, Juan.

PESCA: Juan, when you watch that interview with Bill Clinton, it seemed like he was waiting for the opportunity to respond to his critics, possibly not even motivated by the very question Chris Wallace was asking. He pounced and had a point he wanted to make. It's of course just weeks before Election Day and Bill Clinton's a very smart political guy. He knew he'd dominate headlines. What do you make of the whole thing?

WILLIAMS: Well, the inside discussion, Mike, all week among the political class in Washington, has been whether or not this was a set-up and not a set up by Fox News and the conservatives, the right-wingers and those who would have been sort of laying in wait for Clinton; but the question is whether Clinton himself was making a strategic move.

His wife, obviously, just has repelled a challenge from an anti-war Democrat in her bid to get the Democratic nomination for the Senate in New York. She's looking towards the presidential nomination in 2008. What Clinton did clearly silenced the left wing of the party and made them rally around him and, you know, by connection rally around her.

And there's also the suggestion that somehow he wanted to send a clear statement six weeks before the election that Democrats are not going to be a punching bag and that old Karl Rove trick that he referred to in the interview of making national security the issue and suggesting that Democrats are weak on the issue was not going to play this time, that Democrats are going to punch back.

BRAND: But Juan, isn't this a political risk for Bill Clinton and for the Democrats in general? Because poll after poll shows that Republicans are more trusted by the public on national security issues.

WILLIAMS: This slices very carefully, Madeleine, in terms of American politics. The American people are quite upset about the war in Iraq, do not support the war in Iraq, think the administration is doing a bad job with the war in Iraq. But when it comes to the war on terror, they see it as a separate item and that's exactly what you were saying. The president gets high grades there.

But you know, President Clinton really was speaking about who's responsible, who's responsible for 9/11. And so when we go back to 9/11, it's very interesting because the Gallop poll recently said, who do you hold responsible for the fact that Osama bin Laden hasn't been captured or killed? Fifty-three percent say that's President Bush. Only 36 percent say President Clinton. And for the whole idea of who's responsible for 9/11, it's much the same.

So what we see here is the emphasis shifting from - remember President Bush giving all those speeches around the five year mark after 9/11, talking about protecting the United States, the war on terror, all the legislation being introduced in Congress about the treatment of detainees? All of that shifted the conversation to the war on terror.

President Clinton's outburst has brought it back to a conversation about Iraq and about why Osama bin Laden hasn't been captured and who's to be held responsible. And on all those points, President Clinton thinks that the Democrats come out favorably.

PESCA: I can see why President Clinton and the Democrats would want to shift the conversation in that direction, but do you really think that an exchange between and ex-president and a journalist on a cable news channel is going to weigh on voters minds in five and a half weeks when they go to the polls?

WILLIAMS: Well, Mike, I think the president - the former president, I should say - is going to make every effort to remind them. He's got 30 appearances scheduled in the month of October in support of Democratic candidates around the country. So yes, I think that in political terms this was a moment.

And you've got to also think - and I - this is what people have been really chattering about inside both the Republican and Democratic Party - President Clinton was so angry, so angry about ABC's Path to 9/11 movie, he's been angry about the way that the conservatives, including Fox, treated him during the impeachment, and he thinks that really these people are out to get him.

And so I think that it may not have been that he was intending, you know, thinking it through and saying, oh, I'm waiting for this interview. I think it may have just built up and you saw a volcanic eruption.

BRAND: NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams. Thanks, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Madeleine. Thank you, Mike.

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