Heckuvajob, Napolitano

The DHS secretary will likely survive her "the system worked" flub. The real damage, Reihan Salam says, is to Democrats' 2010 chances now that the GOP has a new opening for white voters.

Kevin Dietsch, UPI Photo / Newscom

Of all President Obama's cabinet members, Janet Napolitano was until recently a good bet for the most likely to succeed. As the popular Democratic governor of Arizona, long considered a deep-red bastion of Goldwaterite conservatism, she had already demonstrated tremendous political prowess. Indeed, she was touted by many as a potential running mate for Obama or as a giant-killer who could defeat John McCain in a Senate race. As a tough prosecutor during the Clinton years, she had a pitch perfect resume for a New Democrat: tough on drug dealers, but also tough on white-collar criminals. And as governor of a state that includes a large Latino population and more than a few rock-ribbed right-wingers, she was also unusually good at finessing the always-tough issue of border security. That is undoubtedly why the president named her as his pick for the thankless job of heading the bureaucratic ass-covering monstrosity we like to call the Department of Homeland Security. Looking ahead to 2010 and 2012, the White House had good reason to expect that immigration reform would be the issue to watch, and there was no better choice than a tough-as-nails, super-competent border state governor to mind the store. But then came the case of the explosive underpants.

Considering that the GOP presided over the Homeland Security mess for seven long years, Democrats have a decent counterattack.

At least some Obamaphiles are still complaining that Napolitano is getting a bum rap, and they almost have a point. No one person deserves the blame for the unmitigated disaster that is U.S. air-travel security, which has done wonders for manufacturers of tiny plastic bottles of toothpaste and little else in the years since 9/11. Like almost everything else that comes out of the federal government, the effort to improve air-travel security became a free-for-all for rent-seeking scoundrels looking to cash in on the fears and anxieties of the American public. The truth is that after the system inevitably fails, we turn to our Homeland Security officials for a show of ritual self-abasement. That's where Napolitano went wrong. Rather than apologize profusely and insist that she'd get to the bottom of a broken system, she gave it a "Heckuvajob"-like endorsement with her now-infamous "the system worked" spiel. Now that she's shrewdly and speedily reversed himself—it turns out that her words were "taken out of context," which is how George W. Bush felt on more than one occasion—my guess is that Napolitano will survive.

Ken Allard: Terror Déjà vuTunku Varadarajan: Stop Punishing FliersClive Irving: The Bomb Threat Under the SeatsThe real and lasting damage, however, is not to Janet Napolitano's tenure in the Obama cabinet. Rather, it is to Democrats running in 2010. One of the quirky things about the post-9/11 political landscape is the way national security issues subtly changed the electoral map. In 2004, when George W. Bush was supposedly the candidate of hard right evangelicals, he did far better than expected in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, where a decent number of middle-class suburbanites—including many Jewish and secular voters—decided that only trigger-happy Republicans intended to take the fight to the terrorists. Now, as Chris Dodd struggles to hold on to his Senate seat, you have Republican Rob Simmons, a CIA veteran, tearing into him for, in his words, sponsoring "an amendment that cut aviation security funding for explosive detective systems that may have prevented Abdulmutallab from ever boarding the plane and putting so many American lives at risk." Ouch. Whether Simmons's tough accusations are fair or not—I think they are—they'll make a powerful 30-second spot. For those who cry foul, try to imagine a world in which the Rahm Emanuel of 2006 refused to use this massive foul-up against Republican incumbents as a matter of principle. There is, of course, plenty of time between now and November 2010 for memories of the Abdulmutallab incident to fade.

But if the threat of terrorism really does become a major issue in the midterms, it will reinforce another trend that doesn't bode well for Democrats. President Obama has never done well with working-class white voters, and Republicans expect to make gains in districts where they represent an above-average share of the electorate. But as Ron Brownstein recently noted in the National Journal —citing the work of Democratic pollster Geoff Garin—college-educated whites, a key Obama constituency, seem to be souring on the president. Many of these middle and upper-middle-class voters are growing skeptical of the president's economic agenda, fearing that it will mean bigger tax hikes than they saw coming during last year's campaign. Michael Petrilli of the conservative Hoover Institution has argued that the GOP needs to win over " Whole Foods Republicans," who can't stand the culture war but who fret about the exploding national debt. What better way to draw these voters into a bigger tent than to promise a smarter, tougher, more effective approach to keeping frequent fliers safe and secure?

Considering that the GOP presided over the Homeland Security mess for seven long years, Democrats have a decent counterattack. Unfortunately, Republicans will do their best to run candidates in swing districts who are untainted by the Bush years. And Republicans will use lines of attack that Democrats will have a very hard time countering. For example, the Obama administration favors plans to unionize airport screeners, which might make problematic employees harder to fire. Translation: the White House chooses Big Labor over Homeland Security. In a recent New York Times online symposium, MIT logistics expert Yossi Sheffi calls for profiling of "dark-skinned young males with Muslim names" (like me) and greater use of body-imaging machines that have raised serious privacy concerns. To put it bluntly, Republicans tend not to worry as much about the opinion of civil rights and civil liberties activists. If the Democrats are smart, they will find some way to neutralize this potentially very compelling narrative.

Like a lot of wonks, I tend to think that there is only so much we can accomplish through air-travel security. There are simply too many people flying in and out of the United States at any given time to maintain a foolproof system, and we'd be wise to recognize that fact. Yet as absurd as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's self-immolation sounds, he was packing a deadly explosive that was fully capable of bringing down the plane. Perhaps a ceramic detonator, disguised as a perfectly legal 3-oz. container, would have done the trick. So far, the president seems to have modeled his rhetorical approach to terror attacks on that of Gordon Brown, the British prime minister who famously reacted to the grisly London Underground bombings with a calm, cool demeanor. At the time, many described Brown's dispassionate crime-fighting approach as a welcome contrast to Tony Blair's more Bush-like talk of the fight against terrorism as a cosmic struggle. The theory is that elevating al Qaeda and the goons who fight in its name only plays into the hands of the bad guys. Instead, we should treat bush-league terrorists as gutless murderers. The trouble is that by fighting expensive wars in Afghanistan and, as voters are fast discovering, Yemen to root out al Qaeda, we've already tipped our hand as to how seriously we're taking the threat to the folks who count—the trained terrorists who are, among other things, seeking revenge for their fallen comrades.

The depressing fact is that Muslim militants are determined to kill Americans, and the party in power—Democratic or Republican—will get savaged for all successful, and even some unsuccessful, attempts. Janet Napolitano is one of a long string of Homeland Security officials who will see their reputations tarnished by the simple fact that they have an impossible job. I tend to think that sharp Republican attacks can make matters better rather than worse, but there's no guarantee of that. Instead, we might get more expensive ass-covering. What keeps me up at night is the prospect of attacks on other, more vulnerable targets which might really rattle our way of life. Quite frankly, it's not that hard to solve the air-travel security problem: issue all passengers paper jumpsuits and a mandatory half-dose of valium. Also, issue everyone a rusty blade with which to stab would-be terrorists. Problem solved. Securing shopping malls and buses and schools and power plants is another matter entirely.

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.