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The debate over a Department of Homeland Security will long stand as one of the sorriest episodes in the history of partisanship.

The idea for this vast new bureaucracy was embraced at a moment of maximum political advantage and pursued with a relentless focus on electoral calculation. By turning domestic security into a divisive and partisan issue, President Bush helped win his party an election. But at what cost?

Recall that the president resisted creating this new department for months after Sept. 11. Calls for the new security structure came largely from Democrats. On June 6, Bush abruptly announced that he had switched sides and embraced the Homeland Security Department.

What was going on at that moment? For weeks, the news had been dominated by stories reporting the failures of American intelligence and law enforcement in the days and weeks leading up to the terrorist attacks. Suddenly, Congress was asking the obvious question: How could this have happened?

It was not a line of inquiry the administration welcomed, and Bush's speech just happened to come on the first day of testimony from FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley. Surprise: Bush overshadowed Rowley.

As Dan Balz, the Washington Post's astute political writer, noted on June 7, Bush appeared on television at a moment when he was "struggling to regain the initiative" on security. While the president retained the confidence of the country, Balz wrote, "his administration is no longer immune from questions or criticism about what happened before Sept. 11, and whether everything is now being done to make the homeland safer."

Given this opening, did the Democrats respond to Bush's speech with partisanship? No. As they did so often after Sept. 11 they turned the other cheek. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, regularly vilified by the Republicans as a mad partisan, called Bush's remarks "encouraging." Rep. Jane Harman of California, one of the Democrats' leading voices on security, called Bush's proposal "bold and courageous."

The natural move from here would have been authentic bipartisanship to get a bill passed. After all, the differences between Bush and the Democrats were so small that Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, noted that 95 percent of the homeland security bill finally approved this week had actually been written by the Democrats.

But getting a department created before the election was clearly less important to the president than having a campaign issue. He picked a fight over union and civil service protections, and Republican senators filibustered various efforts to reach a compromise on the issue. In late September, Bush went so far as to charge that the Senate - meaning its Democratic majority - was "not interested in the security of the American people."

And just to make sure that the bitterness of the election was sustained, House Republicans larded the final bill with a list of special interest provisions, including one protecting the Eli Lilly company from lawsuits relating to a mercury-based vaccine additive that plaintiffs claim caused their children autism.

At least two prominent Democrats, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, remain mystified as to why their party was not able to make more out of the homeland security issue.

Obey, ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, has been arguing for months that the administration is providing far less money than is needed for a long list of security priorities. "It's almost like they've made a conscious decision that you can't defend against all contingencies, so let's just cover the basic ones, and save every dollar we can for tax cuts," Obey says.

Graham, chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, sees the administration as "lethargic" in dismantling terrorist networks inside the United States and thinks the country should be debating how much more needs to be done.

But Obey and Graham went largely unheard. And because the real homeland security debate never happened, you can see Bush's maneuverings as brilliant politics. But it is brilliance bought at a high price.

Washington Post Writers Group

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