Would another major terrorist attack on US soil significantly boost the Republican party? I’m not so sure

Michael Tomasky / London Guardian | June 26, 2008

Everyone seems to agree that Charlie Black, the McCain campaign advisor who told Fortune magazine that a terrorist attack between now and election day would help his candidate, spoke the truth. An impolitic and impolite truth, perhaps, one that visited some grief upon his candidate, who had to denounce the remark, but the truth all the same.

I say: not necessarily. My argument has nothing to do with the merits or lack thereof of Barack Obama as anti-terrorist warrior. Obama can’t beat John McCain on the terrorist-fighting barometer. A poll out this week gave McCain a 14 percentage-point edge over Obama on the issue among independents. The best Obama can probably do is chip that down to 10 points or lower and count on his massive leads on domestic questions and his draw with McCain on Iraq to see him through.

My argument, rather, has to do with the reaction of the people, with the standing of the Bush administration, and with how the media might deal with a new attack. It begins with this question: If the United States were attacked again this fall, would the response be essentially identical to the response to September 11, 2001?

Black’s statement – and the conventional wisdom that has congealed around the idea that Black was expressing an unutterable truth – assumes that it will be. The assumption is that the nation will be shocked and will rally around its president, and that the media will respond to another attack in much the same way it did to 9/11. I’m not sure any of those things is true.

Of course, the people will be shocked. But it’s a general rule that the second time is never the same as the first time. This all depends to some extent on the nature of the attack. Since it’s thought to be in bad taste to speculate on the precise nature of such things, I won’t do it. But let’s just say that, since 9/11, some percentage of the collective American mind is conditioned now to expect that we might be hit again. It probably won’t be quite the shock that the first one was. I’m not counting the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 because that was largely botched – it was planned to be far more devastating – and didn’t hammer itself into American consciousness the way 9/11 did.

Now, let’s consider the state of the Bush administration and the possible media response, which are intertwined. In September 2001, Bush still had credibility. True, he was not overwhelmingly popular. On September 10, Bush had a 52% approval rating – far from gaudy, although a number he’d kill for now. But he’d been president only eight months, and most Americans hadn’t yet grasped the degree of willful ignorance and ideological rigidity that governed his thinking.

The level of shock and the goodwill accorded Bush at the time – we needed a leader, a Churchill, all that – combined to ensure that Bush could set the terms of the fight against this new menace virtually unfettered. That, in retrospect, was a tragic development (actually, some of us knew at the time it was a tragic development, but there was little to be done about it). But it was impossible at the time to challenge that view and gain any traction in the mainstream.

Which leads us to the media. The media, taking their cues from public opinion and from some among its number who had an ideological interest in seeing Bush transformed into Churchill (i.e. the Murdoch-owned media), simply refused to ask any questions for nearly a year. It was May 2002 before the US media – Newsweek, most notably, in a tough package of cover stories that I remarked on at the time – began to ask difficult questions about what the Bush administration knew before 9/11 and what it might have done to prevent the attacks. That issue of Newsweek faded into the woodwork, and the media – including Newsweek itself – set up the bowling pins for the march into Iraq.

Would they do the same this time? I’m not so sure. There would be a period of national unity, of insisting that politics stops “at the water’s edge,” in which even Obama would be obliged to participate. But I suspect that this time around it would be a matter of days or at best weeks, certainly not months, before the country’s best investigative and intelligence reporters – Sy Hersh, Mike Isikoff, Mark Hosenball, Eric Lichtblau, James Risen, Dana Priest and a handful of others – would start turning over rocks. And this time, their editors would let them roam.

Also, this time, Democrats in Congress would stand up and ask some questions. They were cowardly in the extreme in 2001 – to their eternal shame. But politicians are quite adept at kicking a man while he’s down. A president with a 29% approval rating, in whom most of America has lost confidence, isn’t very scary, even after a terrorist attack – that might take him up to, say, the old 52%?

McCain, as I said, would have an advantage over Obama mano a mano. That’s a given. And it may be that the fear factor would move meaningful percentages of voters in swing states over to McCain. But suppose the context of a second attack were that it didn’t carry the shock that 9/11 did, that the Bush administration could not assert without explaining as it was able to do back then, and that the media did some reporting and demonstrated that Bush and his officials should have been more on the ball?

That just doesn’t strike me as a far-fetched scenario. And since presidential elections are decided state-by-state – that is, 30% of Alabama voters might rally to Bush and McCain, but only 3% of Michigan voters might, and voters in Oregon might on the whole turn against the Republicans – it is by extension not far-fetched that a second attack might not change the electoral map that dramatically.

The media always believe that things will happen in conformation with the patterns of the past. But if that were true, Barack Hussein Obama would not be the Democratic nominee. For that matter John McCain wouldn’t be representing the GOP. Life changes. And usually before the narrative does.

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