Bin Laden’s reach: How September 11 will affect this year's election

Jeff Greenfield
Yahoo! News

If you have any doubt that the first Tuesday in November is still shadowed by that second Tuesday in September 11 years ago, just replay a few lines from the Democratic National Convention.

“General Motors is alive, and Osama bin Laden is dead!” thundered Vice President Joe Biden.

“Ask Osama bin Laden if he’s better off than he was four years ago,” said Sen. John Kerry, who earlier declared that “after more than 10 years without justice for thousands of Americans murdered on 9/11, after Mitt Romney said it would be naive to go into Pakistan to pursue the terrorists, it took President [Barack] Obama, against the advice of many, to give that order and finally rid this earth of Osama bin Laden!”

Said President Obama: “A new tower rises above the New York skyline, al-Qaida is on the path to defeat and Osama bin Laden is dead.”

The message is as subtle as a Hellfire missile. The Democrats, so used to playing defense on the issue of national security, are positioning their candidate as tougher, more seasoned, more focused on taking the fight to our enemies. This year we have yet another election—and that’s all but one since the attacks on New York and Washington—in which September 11 has had a powerful, even decisive impact on our politics.

There’s no surprise here. When the blood of thousands of Americans is shed, the impact lingers. For a generation after the Civil War, the Republican injunction to “vote as you shot” kept the party dominant for decades; from 1868 to 1912, only one Democrat—Grover Cleveland—won the White House.

The last Americans left Vietnam almost half a century ago; but the Democratic nominee eight years ago and the Republican nominee four years ago were men whose Vietnam service propelled them into politics. (One of them, Sen. Kerry, saw that record savaged by the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” ads.)

So it comes as no surprise that the deadliest attack on American soil, and America’s response to that violence, has shaped our politics ever since. Consider the following:

  • In 2002, with President George W. Bush’s popularity at a high mark with a 63 percent approval to a 29 percent disapproval rating at the end of October, Karl Rove told Republicans, “We can go to the country on this issue [prosecuting the war on terror] because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might.” Republicans strengthened their hold on the House and won two crucial Senate seats, giving them the majority.
  • In 2004, the War in Iraq—a war made politically possible by the shadow of September 11 and by the widely held, fallacious belief that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had been involved—was a dominant issue. And for the Democrats, the need to present a candidate with national security strength was one key reason why Kerry won the nomination. That message was emphasized—painfully so—when Kerry came on stage at the Democratic National Convention in front of a phalanx of military leaders to proclaim: “I’m John Kerry—reporting for duty.” Had 9/11 never happened, it’s entirely likely that someone else—most likely Sen. John Edwards—would have won that nomination. And without the War in Iraq, and the impulse of voters to support a “wartime president,” the fate of Bush’s re-election might well have been different. There is no doubt that the Republicans understood this. It’s why they put their convention, for the first time ever, in New York City, where the World Trade Center towers stood. And it’s why their message about Kerry was this: “He won’t know how to protect us.”
  • By the 2006 midterms, feelings about the war, and the president, had turned. Just before Election Day, Bush’s approval rating was well under water: with only 38 percent approval to 56 percent disapproval; and by a 38 percent to 61 percent margin, the public disapproved of the war. A majority also said the United States should never have gone to war in the first place. That November, Democrats won back both the House and the Senate.
  • By 2008, the Democratic Party base had so thoroughly rejected the war that those presidential aspirants who had backed the use of force found themselves at a distinct liability. Hillary Clinton, Edwards, Biden and Chris Dodd all had voted for it; only Obama, from the safe distance of an Illinois State Senate seat, had opposed it. It was one major reason why he won that nomination; with a majority of the electorate convinced the war was a mistake, Obama’s lack of national security credentials did not prove disabling.

And now, with the economy dominating the election, the president may find himself with a small, but tangible advantage in arguing that it was under his watch that Public Enemy Number One was dispatched, bringing a measure of justice--and yes, revenge-- to the country.

There is more than a little irony here. For much of our political history, military valor was one of the surest ways to convince the voters that a candidate was worthy of the highest office. George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower all rode their wartime heroics into the White House.

And this year, the continuing impact of September 11th means that a man who never served in the armed forces, but took out Osama bin Laden, may well find himself the latest political beneficiary of this national security tradition.