Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Terrorism as the central front in election '06

With each passing day, it becomes increasingly easy to discern the fundamental divide in the '06 congressional elections.

The White House, GOP headquarters, and most Republican candidates will argue this autumn that we are engaged in a global struggle more treacherous than World War II, that the war in Iraq is a front in that global struggle, and that any deviation from this GOP agenda is a sign of weakness. Witness Vice President Cheney's speech yesterday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, Nevada, as well as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's speech yesterday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, Nevada.

In the other camp, the Democrats will argue that we are indeed engaged in a global struggle, but that the war in Iraq is a wasteful diversion that weakens our ability to effectively wage that global struggle. And it would appear -- for the moment anyway -- that the Democratic argument is winning.

For the first time, a majority of Americans are telling the pollsters that they do not view the global war on terror as a seamless, one-size-fits-all crusade; rather, they now view Iraq as a distinctly separate issue. That's a renunciation of what the Bush administration has been arguing since 2002. It's hard to see how Cheney and Rumsfeld can advance the administration's argument by preaching to the choir in Reno, as opposed to making the case in crucial swing congressional districts.

Nor is it clear how they can regain lost ground by recycling old lines. (For instance: Cheney said yesterday, “We were not in Iraq on September 11, 2001, and the terrorists hit us anyway.” Can’t that line be interpreted in the opposite way that Cheney intends? In other words, that since we weren’t in Iraq when 9/11 happened, we need not have responded to 9/11 by going into Iraq?)

Nevertheless, despite new forecasts that the Democrats are well positioned to retake the House in November, and despite a new Pew poll which reports that most likely voters don't consider terrorism to be a top priority matter, I am skeptical. I can’t help noticing that Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is now making the Bush argument about a global war against “Islamic fascism,” and that he’s tightening the race against Bob Casey. Perhaps there is no direct connection, and that the fascism line is not a turn-on for Santorum's conservative base. But I have also been reading a New Republic piece by law professor Cass Sunstein (no friend of conservatives), who cites some interesting research in a new behaviorial field known as “mortality science.”

The upshot of the study was that when Americans, even self-identified liberals, are reminded of their own mortality in connection with terrorism fears, they tend to view the current commander-in-chief more favorably. Granted, this research took place in 2004, during the Bush-Kerry election, but, Sunstein argues, “Unless circumstances have relevantly changed since 2004, Bush--and almost certainly Republican candidates more generally--are likely to benefit from any reference to terrorism or the September 11 attacks. So Karl Rove knows exactly what he is doing.”

Sunstein says the Democrats basically have two choices: "show the same firmness and resolve -- and capacity for aggression -- that people have associated with Bush," or "try to keep terrorism out of the news." The latter is a loser, and impossible anyway. And the former will be a real challenge for Democrats, especially when the Republicans orchestrate autumn congressional hearings on domestic surveillance (a GOP strength, since most Americans say they favor security over civil liberties), and especially if Bush springs an October surprise by jaw-boning Iran over nuclear weapons.

On the other hand (we mainstream media types are always adept at saying on the other hand), I should acknowledge that even one of Bush's most slavish conservative pundits, Fred Barnes, seems somewhat downbeat about GOP prospects this fall:

"As favorable as recent trends have been (for Bush), they are not nearly enough to spare Republicans a nasty defeat, including the loss of the House and perhaps the Senate. The country is in a disagreeable mood and ready for a change. The Republican base is grumpy and apathetic. Bush may be America's choice to fight terrorism, but he falters on other issues. His boost in the polls doesn't mean he's now popular. He's merely less unpopular. And the August bounce may prove to be ephemeral, as earlier upticks have. There's much to do. Standing pat and expecting terrorism to dominate the campaign would be foolhardy. Grim reminders of the threat on the fifth anniversary of September 11 won't make terror the paramount issue. Nor will presidential speeches or lacerating Republican TV ads. Neither Democrats nor the media will play along. It's Bush's actions, not his words, that will matter."


On another matter: A few weeks ago, I got knocked around in the usual fashion by the usual partisan readers when, in a print column about Bush's political difficulties in the Middle East, I invoked a famous line coined by a famous writer. (My lead paragraph: "In the midst of a 19th-century crisis, American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson declared that 'events are in the saddle, and ride mankind.' It's hard to imagine he would think any differently about today's bloodshed in the Middle East, or about the seeming inability of the world's most powerful leader to seize the reins.") The basic charge among Bush fans was that I used the great Emerson to dress up my obvious "Bush-hating."

Well, on this very day, here comes a noted conservative pundit, riding to my rescue. Thank you, Rich Lowry:

"The Gulf Coast disaster exists against the backdrop of the Iraq War, where America has been seemingly powerless to impose order on the country's warring factions or rebuild a country devastated by 30 years of tyranny and now a budding civil war. If there were a theme to the past two years it would be Ralph Waldo Emerson's 'events are in the saddle, and ride mankind.' Nothing is so damaging to a political leader. Bush's presidency will remain diminished until he finds a way to vindicate human ingenuity's power over events, and show that he again is in the saddle."