Politics & Policy

Terrorism? What Terrorism?

A Democratic mantra.

Last October, an NRO piece asked, “Do Democrats really care about terrorism?” The story then was a poll which showed that Democrats who planned to participate in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina did not, in fact, worry much about terrorism.

The poll, taken by party strategists Stanley Greenberg, James Carville, and Robert Shrum, listed a dozen topics–things like education, taxes, the economy, the environment, Social Security, Medicare, crime, and terrorism–and asked Democratic voters which concerned them most.

In Iowa, one percent said they worried about terrorism, with another two percent saying they worried about homeland security. Those were tiny numbers; in the end, terrorism/homeland security placed dead last on the list of Democratic concerns in all three states.

Still, some Democrats objected to the natural conclusion one would draw from the poll, which is that Democrats–at least those party activists most likely to vote in the early-primary states–were not as concerned as Republicans about protecting the nation from terrorist attacks.

But exit polls in New Hampshire and South Carolina essentially confirmed the Democracy Corps findings, and now yet another poll, this one from Gallup, suggests that Democrats nationwide share much the same sentiments.

In a survey taken from March 5 to 7, Gallup pollsters asked, “Thinking ahead to the elections for president in 2004, if you had to choose, which of the following issues will be more important to your vote?” Gallup gave voters just two choices: economic conditions or terrorism.

Overall, 65 percent answered the economy, while 26 percent said terrorism. Eight percent said both equally, and one percent said neither. From that, one might reasonably conclude that Americans are overwhelmingly more concerned about the economy than terrorism–right?

Not quite. The 65 percent number is an aggregate figure that masks significant differences between the parties. According to a breakdown provided by Gallup, 76 percent of Democrats answered the economy. Just 10 percent of Democrats said terrorism would be more important to their vote, and 13 percent said both equally.

In contrast, 48 percent of Republicans said terrorism was their greater concern, while 46 percent said the economy, and four percent said both equally.

The Gallup pollsters also asked, “If you had to choose, which of the following presidential candidates would you be more likely to vote for–a candidate would do a good job on the economy, or a candidate who would do a good job protecting the country from terrorism?”

Overall, 51 percent said the economy, while 42 percent said terrorism, and seven percent said they had no opinion. But those numbers, too, mask significant partisan differences.

Seventy percent of Democrats chose a candidate who would do a good job on the economy. Just 25 percent chose a candidate who would do a good job protecting the country from terrorism.

For their part, 62 percent of Republicans chose a leader who would be strong on terrorism, while 32 percent chose one who would do a good job on the economy.

Those are stark–and serious–differences.

Democrats seem delighted that their candidate, Sen. John Kerry has what they say are excellent national-security credentials–in particular, a medal-winning military service record–but the poll suggests those same Democrats are not too worried that he would ever have to use them. And given the latest numbers, it’s easy to see why Kerry, when he speaks about terrorism at all, discusses it as a law enforcement issue.

“I think there is an enormous agenda for us in fighting an effective war on terror,” Kerry said at the Democratic debate in Wisconsin on February 15. “And part of it is by building a stronger intelligence organization, law enforcement, but most importantly, the war on terror is not going to be completely won until we have the greatest level of cooperation we’ve ever had globally.”

A military war on terrorism? Not on the radar screen.

The situation brings to mind something said recently by the other medal-winning Kerrey, former Nebraska Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey. On MSNBC last month, Kerrey recalled his days on the Senate Intelligence Committee in the late 1990s, as terrorist attacks on U.S. interests began to accelerate.

“I remember asking very pointedly, why are we treating this like a law enforcement incident?” Kerrey said. “Why are we sending the FBI…to do a crime scene investigation?

“We have a declaration of war by an individual [Osama bin Laden] that demonstrated tremendous military capability, first in Afghanistan and later in several other operations.”

Good questions. And Democrats might want to consider whether they want a president who will respond forcefully to terrorist attacks or whether they want a president who will respond by turning things over to Janet Reno to investigate. That’s the big question of this presidential race.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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