Anthrax. The president said anthrax.
If there was ever any doubt that President George Bush and the Republicans intend to win or lose the November midterm elections primarily on the terrorism issue, Bush put that to rest on Wednesday by interjecting the long-dormant issue of 2001's anthrax attacks into the 2006 campaign.
In discussing his administration's efforts to break-up al Qaeda plots, Bush repeatedly referenced the group's plan for using biological warfare agents like anthrax. His administration, Bush declared from the East Room, "stopped this al Qaeda cell from developing anthrax for attacks against the United States."
Cable news über-gabber Chris Matthews almost immediately called Bush's resurrection of the abiding anthrax murder mystery a "dog whistle"—a hyper-text signal to voters that the world is still full of dangerous people out to harm Americans. And that was not the only dog whistle this week from Bush.
The week kicked off with a new counterterrorism assessment from the administration, the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. The assessment jettisoned such problematic areas as the Middle East peace process and resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as key components of America's counter-terror efforts.
Instead, the document focused on how al Qaeda has been degraded but still remains dangerous. The "Homeland" is not safe, but safer. That formulation, despite sounding slightly odd coming from an evangelical like Bush who recognizes no middle ground on the notion of spiritual safety, is clearly meant to be the GOP's bumper-sticker for the next 60 days. "Not Safe, But Safer."
Next, after sometimes going months without mentioning him, Bush found time to mention Osama bin Laden repeatedly in another speech. This was part of the great Gitmo perp walk which dredged up the scary, tongue-twisting names—and visages—of people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah.
Accompanying the Gitmo talk was a deft move by the White House to dump the issue of crafting trials for such men onto Congress. The administration's intended hyper-text message to voters: Do you want namby-pamby Democrats to set these guys free? Better come out and vote for the GOP in November, then.
Bush quickly moved on to secret CIA prisons, defending their existence to domestic critics and effectively poking the Europeans in the eye at the same time. Europe, of course, is appalled by secret CIA ops on the continent. This particular dog whistle might outrage both coasts of the United States, but plays well in the broad, Red middle where European is code for surrender and appeasement. You didn't think all those Rummy speeches about Nazis and 1939 were going to go to waste, did you?
The coup de grâce—that's French for "big time"—was Bush's call for Congress to approve reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to allow the executive branch greater latitude in domestic spying operations. Bush called FISA's existing oversight provisions on wiretaps "outmoded," once again presenting voters with a choice: My safe way or the scary Democrat way.
In all, it was a quite stunning display of message discipline and internal consistency, one that can be continued even after the 9/11 anniversary caps the natural counterterrorism interest level among the general public. The question is, will it work?
The Rasmussen Reports daily tracking poll has yet to register any movement in Bush's job approval ratings. They remain mired in the 40-percent range. But the key number to watch is the generic congressional ballot, where the Dems held a 10 point advantage heading into Bush's Security Fest '06 activities.
Should that gap begin to shrink, expect the White House to pour on the terror call-backs. That does not automatically mean an Orange Alert for Halloween, but keep your lip gloss and shampoo were the authorities can see them.