PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS in the United States is largely an argument about three issues: national security, the economy, and culture.
In different years, these issues dominate or recede, depending on what's happening around the world.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, for instance, national security receded as a voter concern, paving the way for two relatively inexperienced governors to win the presidency in 1992 (Bill Clinton) and 2000 (George W. Bush). It was in 1992 that Democratic strategist James Carville famously proclaimed, "It's the economy, stupid," and indeed it was, but only because the Soviet threat had expired.
The elections of 1996 and 2000, by contrast, revolved largely around cultural issues, not least of which was the culture of President Clinton's White House, which proved to be Vice President Al Gore's undoing despite the tailwind of extraordinary economic growth. Almost no one cared that Gore was more experienced than George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas (and my first cousin), in matters of national security.
This year the Democrats would have you believe the election will focus on the economy. "The biggest issue in this election is jobs and economic security," Howard Dean said recently in Iowa.
But that's unlikely.
The simple fact is that Sept. 11 returned national security to the forefront of voter concerns. And President Bush upped the ante when, in a speech to the graduating class at West Point in 2002, he changed US national security policy from one of containment and deterrence to one of "preemption," if need be.
"The war on terror will not be won on the defensive," Bush said. "We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act."
And so it did.
The president expanded the nation's counterterrorism strategy ambitiously. The war in Afghanistan sent the message that there was no haven for Al Qaeda. The war in Iraq sent an equally forceful message to the world that providing terrorists with the technological means (such as a tactical nuclear weapon) or the intellectual property (like a new design for genetically altered smallpox) to cause catastrophe might lead to "regime change," as it was politely called. The postwar reconstruction of Iraq sent another message: The United States was determined to change the dead-end dynamics of Middle Eastern politics.
The response of the Democratic Party's leading lights to this dramatic shift in national security policy and its execution has been myopic.
Democrats ranging from Bill Clinton to Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry have expressed regret that the president had acted "unilaterally" and thus had made the United States unpopular at the United Nations and in various world capitals.
And Vermont's Governor Howard Dean, most weirdly of all, has entertained the notion that Bush had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks but chose to let it happen because, well, never mind.
Whatever one thinks of Bush's counterterrorism strategy, it does have the advantage of being grounded in reality.
The fact is that at the intersection of terror and advanced technology lies the distinct possibility of catastrophic destruction. A catastrophic event in the United States would do terrible damage not only to its victims but to the national and the global economy, shattering investor confidence, which is the lifeblood of the capitalist system. Without a vital economy there can be no expanded health care coverage, job creation, or yet more money for seniors.
So everything rides on preventing a catastrophic event from occurring in New York or Washington or Los Angeles. Counterterrorism policy isn't an issue in this campaign. It's the only issue.
The Democrats may believe that they can win on economic issues. But the reality is that until the Democrats convince vast swaths of the electorate that they are every bit as serious about fighting terrorism on as many fronts as is required, until they articulate a plan that is every bit as aggressive and ambitious and steadfast as Bush's has been, until they make clear to the country that they will not falter or fail in this struggle, they will remain outside the circle of majority consideration.
The road back to the White House goes through this issue. It does not go left.
John Ellis is a partner in a venture capital firm and contributing columnist for Techcentralstation.com. This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.