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Terror topples the Democrats

November 11, 2002

My good friend Richard Reeves, the liberal columnist, made a shrewd prediction after terrorists attacked the nightclub in Bali. “When I saw the cruel scenes of death and destruction along the beach in Bali,” he wrote, “my first thought was coldly political: This means the Republicans will win the congressional elections next month.”President Bush had been saying that the terrorists were everywhere, and it seemed to Reeves that voters would conclude that Bush was right about a universal threat. Reeves didn’t much like the president’s anti-Iraq rhetoric. But he thought Bali validated that rhetoric — at least for now — and tipped the balance between domestic issues and the war on terrorism in favor of heavier concern about terror.Some polls backed up this conclusion. One in Great Britain, two days after Bali, found a 10 percent leap (from 32 percent to 42 percent) in support of a war against Iraq. Closer to home, a mid-October Gallup poll showed that international issues had a firmer grip on Americans than economic ones. The economy, Gallup said, was mentioned by a larger share of voters than in the previous two midterm elections, but terrorism was an even bigger issue. Gallup said that “this year, unlike any year since the Vietnam War, an enormous number of respondents tell (us) that the number one problem has to do with … terrorism, the situation with Iraq, national defense, or fear of war generally.”

It wasn’t just Bali, or even the long will-we-or-won’t-we debate on invading Iraq. The shooting of two Marines, the blowing up of the French tanker and the seizure of the Moscow theater by Chechen separatists all had an impact. So did the Beltway sniper story and the Muslim connection of John Allen Muhammad, who reportedly hated America and sympathized with the events of Sept. 11.

Terrorism isn’t much mentioned now as a cause of Republican success at the polls. Pundits, of course, are entitled to point in every direction when explaining an election result. Maybe the Republican victory is due to the alleged genius of Karl Rove, the foolish shenanigans at the Wellstone funeral, the issue-free campaigns run by many Democrats, or even (as Rush Limbaugh suggested) the national impact of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s unprincipled decision to ignore state election law so Democrats could retain Robert Torricelli’s Senate seat.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the living room — voters’ perception of the gravity of the terrorism threat. President Bush’s approval ratings, almost entirely a result of his resolve on the terrorism issue, are down from the first months after Sept. 11 but still, as Gallup says, “exceptionally strong compared to past presidents at this point in their terms.”

By contrast, the Democrats have managed to look consistently weak and vacillating on terrorism and war. It often seemed that the official party position was to hope that war and terrorism would disappear so that Republicans could be punished at the polls for corporate crime and a poor economy. In September, The New Republic called the Democrats “a party of bystanders, a party without a position on the issue that matters most.”

Worse, they have consistently misplayed a reasonably strong hand. Tom Daschle foolishly blocked the creation of a Department of Homeland Security in a dispute over nonunion jobs. This allowed Republicans to argue that filtering money to a Democratic constituency (unions) was more important to Daschle than protecting the nation.

Lunacy was a problem for Democrats, too — the outbursts from Hollywood sages such as Barbra Streisand and Harry Belafonte, the “Bush is a terrorist” signs at anti-war rallies, and the astonishing folly of the Baghdad Democrats — Democratic congressmen who showed up in Iraq to oppose the war, inviting comparison with Jane Fonda in Hanoi. Is this any way to run a campaign?

Many voters still aren’t sure that the Democrats take terrorism seriously. “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” the influential new book by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, treats “the fear of terror” as a passing phenomenon that will recede and allow Democratic dominance as “Americans begin to focus again on job, home and the pursuit of happiness.”

Other voters are bothered by a constellation of ideas among some core Democrats: a vague but persistent hostility to the military, a feeling that American influence abroad is almost always pernicious, and a cultural relativism that endorses almost any action by “oppressed” nations. These attitudes are traditionally excused or tolerated by the chattering classes. But we can’t be surprised when nonchatterers react against them in the voting booth.

From → Politics

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