Politics in a post-Sept. 11 world

"Andrew," a Cuomo aide tells the Democratic challenger to New York Governor George Pataki, "what you have to understand is that they're going to run commercials with images of Pataki pulling out bodies."

Published October 2, 2001 11:25PM (EDT)

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 had changed the world only nine days earlier, but finally someone was ready to think, and worry, about how the horrific loss of lives might affect the crass business of politics.

So on Sept. 20, Rhoda Glickman stood in a Washington courthouse building where she had been called to jury duty, and talked on her cellphone, trying to explain to a seemingly reluctant listener that the New York political landscape had changed as dramatically as the city's skyline.

Glickman worked as special assistant to former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo, who is planning to take the very job from New York Gov. George Pataki that Pataki took from his father, Mario Cuomo, in 1994.

But that challenge had become far more daunting, Glickman explained on the phone, since Pataki had performed so ably as governor since the Sept. 11 crisis.

"Andrew," Glickman said into her gray Motorola cellphone, "what you have to understand is that they're going to run commercials with images of Pataki pulling out bodies."

Glickman would later insist that she was not speaking with Cuomo. But regardless, she vividly summed up the strange new world of post-Sept. 11 politics: Politicians once thought vulnerable may now seem indispensable, to an electorate still reeling from the shock of an attack within our borders.

Pataki, a relatively colorless guy who's now become a comforting national figure, is only one example. Three weeks after the tragedy, political operatives are drying their tears and starting to look at their 2002 calendars, readjusting their strategies. Though tacticians from both parties can envision ways in which the New World will benefit their candidates, the truth is that no one has any idea.

After all, who could have anticipated that New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani could ask Democratic mayoral primary finalist Mark Green for an extra three months as mayor -- and that Green would readily acquiesce?

Who would have predicted that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, badly damaged by the election snafus that forced the Supreme Court to decide the 2000 presidential election on his brother's behalf, would see Democratic challengers back off less than a year later, afraid that attacking any Bush might be political suicide?

Who would have envisioned that the return of Vice President Al Gore to the political stage -- his Sept. 29 speech to Iowa Democrats -- would be minor news? Or that, instead of featuring Gore calling for new leadership to replace the man he once would refer to in private only as "Dubya," the former vice president would declare, "We are united behind our president, George W. Bush" and would notably call Bush "my commander in chief"?

"It's impossible to look into the crystal ball and predict what the issue matrix is going to be three, six, nine months from now," says a GOP strategist. What's more, the strategist says, "it's clear that this doesn't have an end date where all of a sudden we're going to return to where things were on Sept. 10th."

But not knowing doesn't mean that both sides aren't trying to game out various possible ways the current crisis will affect the 2002 political scene. Democrats seem to think -- or at least hope -- that the American people are slowly but surely starting to get their minds off the attacks and, while remaining concerned about security issues, focusing on other domestic matters as well, like the economy and healthcare.

Republicans anticipate that in a time of crisis, Americans will be naturally inclined to support incumbents, which will help them in the House where they hold a nine-seat majority, and in statehouses nationwide, where they hold a majority of gubernatorial seats. And a protracted military campaign, even a low-level one, could help the GOP generally, since the party consistently polls better than Democrats when it comes to defense and national security issues.

"Defense and national security issues are for Republicans what environmental issues are for Democrats," says the GOP strategist confidently. Of course a military campaign that stumbles could hurt Republicans, badly.

Whatever the case, the new reality certainly changes the plans of individual politicians.

"It will be more difficult to beat incumbents in this election, certainly," says Amy Walter, an analyst with the Cook Political Report. "People aren't necessarily looking for change." Even Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., expected not to seek another term after a summer of scandal over his affair with missing intern Chandra Levy, is said to be planning to run again.

In the Senate, Democrats have lost several potentially strong challengers, who decided not to pursue campaigns against incumbents in the wake of Sept. 11. Former Florida congressman Pete Peterson will not seek to oust Gov. Bush; Oregon's Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber won't challenge Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.; and Dan Glickman (husband of former Cuomo special assistant Rhoda Glickman) decided not to run against Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

While the candidacies of Peterson, Kitzhaber and Glickman were never declared, by all accounts the events of Sept. 11 played a role in their decisions not to run.

Conversely, Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who seemed to be set to retire, declared last week that he would in fact seek reelection.

"Seeing all that happen and all those people looking for ways to contribute when I had one right here before me, in my lap, so to speak, it became obvious," Thompson announced Sept. 24. "Now is clearly not the time to leave."

Likewise, a number of House members who were considering running for higher office -- Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who was going to run for governor; Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, who was to run for the Senate seat Phil Gramm is leaving -- have decided to stay put.

"You're not going to see a lot of retirements," says the GOP strategist. "People are not going to leave in the middle of this crisis. It's favorable terrain for incumbents to run on; you need look no further than Gary Condit."

Even before Sept. 11, states were announcing their redistricting plans (which Walter calls "incumbent protection programs"). Now, with voters loath to even leave their houses much less usher in a whole new bunch of politicians to lead them, one has to assume an even more perilous terrain for challengers -- in a system where incumbents win 98 percent of the time anyway. That leaves the political world focused more on issues than personalities. And in the short term, at least, Democrats don't seem well equipped to win any sort of issues war.

Issues that Democrats intended to use against Bush and the GOP, like the HMO patients' bill of rights and the threatened Social Security surplus, may now be nonstarters. There is clearly a whole new economic calculation. Democrats were gearing up to slam Bush for a proposed budget that would eat into the Social Security surplus. That's no longer a winning issue, as the war on terrorism seems to require spending as much money as needed on security and defense, deficits be damned.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and his colleagues are doing whatever they can to voice support for Bush and refrain from criticizing any of his proposals -- whether on airport security or economic stimulus.

Even on controversial matters like Attorney General John Ashcroft's request for new law enforcement powers to combat terrorism -- which Democrats and some Republicans are wary of passing in its original form, as many feel it contains potential infringements on civil liberties -- Democrats are doing what they can to keep dissent quiet.

But a senior Democratic official says that polls indicate that the public is turning back to issues like the economy and healthcare. More important, of course, is Walter's observation that "a year from now we might not be talking about bin Laden."

But if we are still talking about bin Laden and terrorism next fall, then Republicans stand to gain electorally, says the GOP strategist. National security and intelligence issues usually only determine the voting decisions of 3 percent of the electorate, but according to internal Republican polls, in some parts of the country up to 30 percent of the electorate says its votes will be motivated by those issues.

"The same way Democrats just have overwhelming credibility on the environment, that's where we are on defense and security," says the GOP strategist.

According to a recent Ipsos-Reid poll, voters prefer the GOP to the Democrats 45 percent to 17 percent when asked which party they trusted to fight the war on terrorism. It is not all that remote a possibility that Democrats with records that can be construed as weak on defense or national security could be made to pay for those votes come November 2002. Bush especially seems do be doing quite well, for instance, with a Gallup poll approval rating of 90 percent -- the best for any president in the poll's history. But Bush's success right now doesn't seem to have coattails. In a recent Time-CNN poll, a generic Democrat beats a generic Republican 46 percent to 42 percent in a hypothetical congressional face-off. And the GOP could suffer from years of preaching an anti-government message, since plans for a bigger government role in airline security, in rebuilding New York, in developing an economic stimulus package and in protecting the nation's borders seem to indicate that the era of big government is back. "People are more pro-government now than they've been in years," says one Democratic official. A recent Washington Post poll indicated that 64 percent of those polled think the government can be trusted to do the right thing at least most of the time, the highest rating for government since 1966.

All of which means nothing but confusion and questions about how the current crisis will play out politically. One need only remember President George H.W. Bush's astronomical poll numbers in 1991, after Operation Desert Storm, to know that it's impossible to bank on anything in this increasingly insecure world.

Will Americans blame Bush for the tanking economy, as many Democrats seem to think? Or will they consider any future recession "bin Laden's economy," as the GOP strategist says?

Will Republicans continue to follow Bush's orders, as did House Majority Whip Tom DeLay when he dropped his objections to partial funding of our nation's dues to the United Nations? Or will those conservatives with grave concerns about too much free-spending for cities and industries directly affected by the attacks -- like Assistant Senate Minority Leader Don Nickles, R-Okla. -- start cutting a more public profile with their objections?

"I think they're setting themselves up for an issue agenda that's not going to be necessarily favorable towards them," the Democratic operative says hopefully.

Of course, the biggest questions loom about national security. How will the inevitable U.S. military operations go? What if there are future terrorist attacks? Will Americans start to resent the Bush administration if there are other attacks -- or will they hold it against Senate Democrats if they hamstring Ashcroft's counterterrorism bill?

Before Sept. 11, Democrats were looking "at an environment where Bush's approval ratings were starting to drop, where the 'right direction/wrong track' numbers were going the wrong way, where the economy was certainly sputtering," Walter says. "If you were a Democrat you were looking at some positive movement." Democrats were finally all starting to coalesce around one message, that Bush was mishandling the economy and the surplus.

Now, however, "no one is talking about it, and you can't without getting a tremendous amount of backlash. And that's going to be the question: How can you make that argument a year from now, especially if we're still embroiled in the issue of homeland defense? How will Democrats be able to get traction on an issue when you still have the nation reeling from the events of Sept. 11?"

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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