This week, nation paused to reflect on the two-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Our national attention focused on the horrific acts of that day, the death toll, the cold-eyed perpetrators, their shadowy network of supporters and the madmen who led them.
And in the days preceding the anniversary, many Democrats on the presidential campaign trail shifted their rhetoric from their contention that Bush has led the nation to failure in Iraq to a contention that Bush has led the nation to failure in the war on terror.
During the last two presidential debates, the issues of terrorism and national security came up sporadically in a non-Iraq context.
At last week’s debate in New Mexico, former Illinois senator Carol Moseley Braun contended that al Qaeda has been forgotten by the administration.
“Let me mention a name that probably nobody has heard in a long time,” she said. “And that’s Osama bin Laden — ‘bin missing.’ We haven’t been looking for him because we got off on the wrong track.”
Braun spelled out a worldview where the Bush administration’s war on terror has been a failure because bin Laden is not in U.S. custody, nor is his head mounted on a pike on the White House lawn.
“This administration has frittered away the goodwill, failed to go after al Qaeda and bin Laden, thumbed their nose at Old Europe and the international community, left our troops in the field without the resources they need and put us in a situation in which they have no answer for the American people how we can get out with honor,” she said.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida made similar comments.
“What will we do about restarting the war against Osama bin Laden, which he effectively abandoned 12 months ago?” Graham asked.
In Tuesday’s debate in Baltimore, Graham snorted that the name of America’s most wanted terrorist is “Osama Been Forgotten.”
Al Sharpton echoed the theme, saying, “We still have bin Laden at large. Newsweek magazine can find him, video and audio coverage can find him. This guys has out more videos than a rock star, but George Bush’s intelligence agencies can’t find him.”
Dean said the administration leaders “are bogged down in Iraq, they are not defending us from Osama bin Laden, and they are not paying any attention to Latin America, which is the most important hemisphere in American history.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman was pretty much alone when he argued that the military operations in Iraq are a key element of the war on terror. When asked what he would tell the parents of slain American soldiers, he said that our troops “are now involved in a critical battle in the war on terrorism, because terrorists have come in there to strike at us and strike at the instruments of civilization — the Jordanian embassy, the United Nations headquarters, and the Shia mosque and killing Ayatollah Hakim. These are enemies of civilization, and if we don’t get together and defeat them now, shame on us.”
Stuart Rothenberg, a veteran political analyst and pollster, thinks the Democrats have an uphill battle in convincing the public that the Iraq war is a distraction from fighting terrorism.
“I have argued for a long time that the public makes no distinction between the war in Iraq and the war on terror,” Rothenberg said. “I’m not sure I’m still comfortable with that argument, but the public certainly has put Iraq in context with the war on terrorism. People think about issues of foreign policy, the military, Iraq, and Afghanistan as peas in the same pod.”
The Democrats’ sporadic comments on al Qaeda were footnotes to their lengthy criticism of the White House’s management of Iraq’s reconstruction.
“A little earlier on, they argued that the president wasn’t spending enough money on homeland security, and we’ll hear more about that if there’s another attack,” Rothenberg said. “But the president has been visible with all these color coded warnings and Ridge going around the country. The Democrats feel there are better roads to take, such as criticizing that we’re bogged down in Iraq and it’s costing us tens of billions of dollars. They’ve found other ponds to fish in.”
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, isn’t surprised that Sept. 11, al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden haven’t been big topics on the campaign trail for Democrats.
“One thing you didn’t hear a lot of [at the New Mexico debate] is Sept. 11,” Sabato said. “It’s become so closely associated with President Bush, and the Democrats don’t want to remind independent viewers of what they like about the president. That last debate was a bash-a-thon.”
Sabato said that organizing an antiterrorism policy — as opposed to criticizing Bush’s moves in Iraq — just isn’t a hot topic among the Democrats who vote in the party’s primaries.
“The Democrats who vote in primaries and caucuses do not have that at the top of their agenda,” he said. “Now, the eventual Democratic nominee will have to address the issue of how he would defend the country from terrorism in great detail. If he doesn’t do that, he won’t pass that threshold of credibility to be president.”
Sabato also figures that the issue of how best to fight terrorism will be a central one for the Bush reelection campaign — but doesn’t expect Bush to press the issue anytime soon.
“You can’t do it every day or every month, year in year out,” he said. “There will be intermittent focus for Bush now, and then it will be a big general election issue. You don’t want to play your best cards right at the beginning….Think about this: There are going to be 30,000 to 40,000 reporters covering the 2004 Republican convention in New York City. Those reporters will be desperate for stories. How many stories will be written about 9/11 without Bush having to say a word? They’re putting the issue out there by putting the convention there and holding it right before the three-year anniversary of 9/11.”
Rothenberg suspects that based on the current political atmosphere, terrorism might be only the second or third biggest topic on voters’ minds when they step into the booth in November 2004.
“The biggest issue will be economy and second biggest issue will be Iraq,” “Terrorism could be an issue, but much of it depends on whether we have an event. If we have an attack that demonstrates that the government failed to deal with or prevent a domestic or international threat, then terrorism will be a much bigger issue. But otherwise, it will be overshadowed by the economy and the narrower issue of Iraq.”
— Jim Geraghty, a reporter at States News Service, is an NRO contributor.