"There's a bear in the woods," began the most effective television commercial of Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign for re-election. "For some people the bear is easy to see. Others don't see it at all."
This bit of political brilliance highlighted concerns about challenger Walter Mondale's suitability to be commander in chief. It played on the broader fear in the post-Vietnam era that the Democratic Party had gone soft on security and could not be entrusted with the nation's defense.
The bear spot, however, never mentioned national security or the Soviet Union, Democrats or Republicans, Mondale or Reagan. It didn't even mention an election.
It was an allegory, and a devastating one at that, reminding the American people that the leadership of one party was actively confronting a menace to the United States, while the leadership of the other party was, at best, incapable of recognizing that menace or, at worst, undermining efforts to advance American security interests.
Reagan trounced Mondale in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in American history, winning 49 of 50 states and 59 percent of the popular vote.
A handful of Democrats Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joseph Lieberman, for instance seem to be cognizant of this history and the propensity for their party to be perceived as being weak on national security.
On this issue at least, they are appealing to an old and all but lost center of American politics and hearkening back to a Democratic foreign policy that vigorously advanced American interests.
The rest of the Democratic leadership, however, seems determined to rush headlong into a repeat of 1984.
It began last fall with the constant drumbeat for the immediate, or almost immediate or relatively immediate, withdrawal of all, or most or some, American combat forces from Iraq.
The point is not whether the American people have grown skeptical of the rationale for going to war in Iraq or the consequences of that war. By almost any measure of reliable polling data, a majority of them clearly has.
The political issue is whether Democrats can capitalize on that skepticism without corroborating the perception of weakness. Put another way, can they avoid pandering to the hard-left interests that have repeatedly spelled electoral disaster for them since 1968 and instead address the concerns of average Americans? Can they prove that they see the bear and have a strategy for victory?
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean already provided an answer when he said, "The idea that the United States is going to win the war in Iraq is just plain wrong."
And it came from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid when he gloated to party activists, "We killed the Patriot Act."
Reid might have attenuated his partisan boast to say, "We forced the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress to consider greater protections for civil liberties in the Patriot Act." He might even have said, "We are working to fix a flawed yet essential Patriot Act."
Instead, Reid just killed it and tossed out the red meat.
As with Iraq, the point here is not whether a large number of Americans from a broad political spectrum are concerned about the erosion or potential erosion of civil liberties in the war on terror. They are.
The unavoidable political issue is that an even larger number of Americans has a greater concern that, given the opportunity, terrorists will kill more of their countrymen. And they believe that the Patriot Act, flaws and all, has been instrumental in preventing a repeat of Sept. 11, 2001, on American soil. As a political slogan, "We killed the Patriot Act" has all the electoral potential of "I am not a crook."
There is indeed a bear in the woods ... and in the desert and in the mountains and even, perhaps, in our own cities. And saying so doesn't compel Americans to surrender their right to dissent against their government or cede any other constitutional rights
To pretend it is not there, however, and to sublimate national security to score some cheap partisan points isn't just bad politics, it's also bad policy.