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JOAN VENNOCHI

A post-9/11 problem for Democrats

PRESIDENT BUSH again pushed his magic 9/11 button -- the one designed to panic the country and paralyze the Democrats.

Having survived ludicrous color-coded terror alerts and intermittent videograms from Osama bin Laden, the country is growing too jaded to panic. But Bush is still batting .500. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, continue to paralyze Democrats, who can't get beyond ''no" as their official national security policy.

The Democrats' paralysis began immediately after 9/11. Spurred by patriotism, a desire to look nonpartisan and a fear of looking weak on terror, they bought into the Bush response. They endorsed the USA Patriot Act and authorized Bush to invade Iraq. Now, moving beyond the much-maligned neo-con strategy to their own national security vision is proving to be difficult.

During the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, tried but failed to separate his campaign from policies he previously embraced. Over the past year, Democrats in Congress noisily challenged the president on issues ranging from war to torture and wiretapping. Each time, the White House pushed back with the usual formula of scare and dare.

Challenge war, you're a coward and a traitor. Challenge wiretapping, you're a wimp and a terrorist protector. Express concern about civil liberties and you're Michael Dukakis, a card-carrying member of the ACLU.

When Democrats try to stir up citizen outrage over Big Brother watching them, the White House quickly turns their sinister view into something more kindly and paternalistic: Big Daddy is watching over you -- and by the way, he disrupted a plan by Al Qaeda to hijack a commercial airliner and fly it into a Los Angeles skyscraper.

The past week illustrated the Democrats' continuing dilemma.

On Monday, Republicans and Democrats grilled Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales about the legality of Bush's order to allow the military to listen in on Americans' international phone calls without a warrant. Gonzales was excused from testifying under oath. The courtesy granted by Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania underscored the unchecked power the GOP has to control its message.

The picture that was not snapped -- the country's highest law enforcer raising his right hand and pledging to tell the truth about wiretapping -- was still worth a thousand words. Skepticism about the policy presented by Gonzales led the Bush administration to allow Gonzales and a high-ranking intelligence officer to brief the House and Senate intelligence committees about the domestic spying program.

Then, Coretta Scott King's funeral intervened. Four presidents attended -- Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and the Republican father and son, George H.W. and George W. Bush. Carter used the platform to allude to the Bush administration wiretapping controversy. He mentioned the difficulties that Mrs. King and her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., endured as they became the target of secret government wiretapping; he failed to mention that attorney general Robert F. Kennedy, a Democrat, authorized the King wiretapping. In their funeral remarks, the Bushes took the gracious approach, leaving the Democrats to look tastelessly partisan.

Moments like that undercut the Democrats' ability to exploit the growing public perception of incompetence and abuse of power in the Bush White House. Facing the 2006 election year, Republicans in Congress are attuned to the public's unhappiness over the direction the country is headed. It is apparent in the GOP's pressing of Gonzales about wiretapping; the resistance to certain provisions of the Patriot Act; and the criticism of the administration's slow reaction to Hurricane Katrina.

But whenever resistance to his policies starts to reach critical mass, Bush pushes the old 9/11 button:

Speaking to the National Guard Association this week, he revealed that the United States and governments of several Southeast Asian countries disrupted a plan by Al Qaeda to hijack a commercial airliner and fly it into a Los Angeles skyscraper in early 2002. Vice President Dick Cheney told a group of conservatives at the Heritage Foundation that the country has been protected from additional terrorist attacks by ''more than just luck."

Average citizens smirk, and Democrats scoff. Bush never fails to entertain. This time, he referred to the West Coast target as the ''Liberty Tower" instead of the ''Library Tower."

But until Democrats come up with a post-9/11 strategy, the Bush White House and the GOP get the last laugh.

Who makes you feel safer?

Hillary Clinton or John McCain?

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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