In his statement on the dust-up over a UAE-owned company operating U.S. ports, magnificent Hair-Do and Republican senator from Nevada John Ensign said the deal "sends the message that we are not being as diligent as we should in terms of America’s security, and that is not a perception we can afford to create.”
It is perfectly understandable that Ensign would be gravely concerned about the "perception" of America's security. The "perception" of Republicans as the muscular daddy party that will protect us from evil sold wonderfully with voters in 2002 and 2004, and that "perception" is central to GOP campaign strategy again this year. Of course Ensign wasn't on the ballot in 2002 and 2004, so if anybody was delighted to hear Karl Rove explaining last month that the Republicans would definitely be milking the national security issue one more time in 2006, it was Ensign. Finally, after longingly watching so many of his GOP Senate colleagues, as well as Bush, ride flag-waving chest-thumping patriotic fear-mongering to victory at the polls, Ensign gets his first post-9-11 campaign -- his turn to cash in on the "perception" that he's a Republican, ergo, he's, you know, tough on terror.
The reality is something altogether different. The best thing about the Dubai World Ports story has been the growing popular realization that overall port security has been woefully neglected by the Bush administration and its Republican apologists in Congress -- including Ensign (a point Ensign's Democratic challenger, Jack Carter, made Thursday). While more than $20 billion in federal grants have been awarded for aviation security, only $700 million has been spent on port security grants, and "the lowest-paying jobs on the waterfront are security people" (Post). Year after year, port officials and the Coast Guard -- along with many Democrats -- have identified the problem to the Bush administration, and asked for adequate funding to make ports more secure. And year after year, the administration and the Republican Congress have ignored the calls (Knight-Ridder), being, as they are, preoccupied with bolstering the "perception" that they're protecting us, as opposed to actually protecting us.
Ensign, as much a go-along get-along Bush sycophant as anyone in Washington D.C., is part of the problem; at least six times, Ensign has voted against increasing funding for port security, including:
- In March 2005, Ensign voted against a budget reconciliation bill amendment to restore $565 million in cuts to first responder programs, including $150 million for port security grants.
- In September 2004, Ensign voted against an amendment to the Homeland Security budget bill to provide an additional $150 million for equipment to detect nuclear weapons in containers entering U.S.ports.
In July 2003, Ensign voted not once but twice against an amendment to the Homeland Security Appropriations bill to increase spending on port and border security by $238.5 million. While proposing the amendment, Sen. Robert Byrd explained why it was necessary: "In November of 2002, President Bush signed the Maritime Transportation Security Act which established new standards for securing our Nation's ports. Despite the fact that the Coast Guard had estimated it will cost the ports $5.4 billion over 10 years to implement those standards, including $1.1 billion the first year, the President did not request a dime for port security."
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which helpfully catalogued those votes, notes that Ensign is the rule, not the exception, when it comes to Republican senators treating port security as if it were the weather, i.e., talking about it but not doing anything about it. “Anyone looking for a definition of the pre-9/11 worldview need look no further than at how leading Republican Senators have blocked Democratic efforts to improve port security since the 2001 attacks,” DSCC spokester Phil Singer says. “If these Republican Senators are genuine about doing something to improve port security, they should stop voting against Democratic efforts to keep America safe and embrace them instead.”
Oh, Ensign and his GOP cohorts "are genuine" all right. They are genuinely convinced that they needn't really do anything serious about protecting ports -- or do anything seriously in the public interest on any other policy issue, for that matter -- so long as voters continue to buy the "perception" that the Republicans are, you know, the tough ones. And while the notion of Republicans cherishing "perception" more than reality isn't much of a surprise, it is a bit unusual to see Ensign admitting it so readily.