The politics of terrorism

How the GOP used 9/11 to scare Americans into war: An excerpt from "Stand Up, Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, and the Politics of Revenge."


E.J. Dionne Jr.
June 5, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)

"All of us stand with the president and support every effort to bring to justice those responsible for these despicable crimes."
-- Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Democrat of Delaware, Sept. 11, 2001

"We will speak with one voice."
-- Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Sept. 11, 2001

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"The fact that the administration used 9/11 in the last election, that they seemed intent on using the president's role as commander-in-chief as a way of soliciting votes, has created a hardening of partisan lines that will be felt until the end of this administration."
-- Democratic Congressman Chakah Fatah of Philadelphia, January 2003

In light of the bitter partisan divisions that now characterize our politics, it is hard to remember the depth of national unity that immediately followed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It seems fanciful that there was once a time when Democrats blunted all criticisms of George W. Bush, united behind him, and prayed for his success. Literally: prayed.

I will never forget a conversation I had shortly after 9/11 with a Democratic consultant, a happy warrior who loves to defeat Republicans and has no particular sympathy for the president. Asked about his attitude toward Bush in the wake of the attack, he replied: "I actually went into church and knelt down and prayed that he'd be successful. He's ours. He's all we've got. Pray God that he's going to do what's best for our country."

The national crisis meant that Republicans and Democrats stopped throwing loaded lockboxes at each other. They stopped challenging each other's moral standing. The talk -- of which I was part -- was of a new seriousness in politics and the possibility of rolling back the bitterness of the last decade.

Bush himself seemed to change. His foreign policy in the months immediately after 9/11 lost some of the unilateralist tinge that colored so many of his early foreign policy choices and statements -- and later ones. Winning the battle against terror required an end to unilateralism and the construction of a broad international coalition. The fact that the world rallied to the United States made hopes for such a coalition realistic. And the need for such an alliance immediately raised the profile and operational responsibilities of Secretary of State Colin Powell. This, too, had positive political effects. Powell, the quintessential coalition-builder, was the cabinet officer most popular among independents and Democrats.

A president who had said he was not "into" nation-building showed signs of understanding that nation-building was exactly what Afghanistan needed. The United States' failure to help rebuild Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviet invasion in the 1980s laid the groundwork for the rise of the very forces the United States confronted on Sept. 12, 2001. It turned out there was a practical side to humanitarianism. This sentiment was shared across party lines, but it was especially important to Bush's new Democratic allies.

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Bush's post-9/11 rhetoric had particular appeal to his ideological adversaries. Early on, Bush stood up in defense of the rights of America's Muslim community. In assailing the Taliban, the president emphasized the aspects of its rule -- its denials of religious liberty, its repression of political opponents, and, especially, its war against gender equality -- most offensive to liberals and the political left. In his speeches, Bush grafted the language of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to the martial rhythms of Ronald Reagan.

Bush even seemed to abandon his pre-Sept. 11 approach to domestic issues. Instead of trying to win legislative battles by uniting his own party and picking off as few Democrats as narrow victories required, he sought broad majorities on emergency spending and war policy. He won over not only dissidents but also the Democratic leadership. For a moment, at least, Bush transformed a partisan administration into a kind of coalition presidency. Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican and one of his party's best political analysts, saw Bush as having the opportunity "to reshape the image of the party from the top down." One could even imagine the reappearance of something like Eisenhower Republicanism.

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The evidence of a new, less confrontational politics was everywhere. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt had almost nothing to do with each other until they were brought together by the need to agree on measures to combat terrorism. Suddenly, Republicans and the administration were rewriting the emergency anti-terror spending bills to accommodate the Democrats. Gephardt and Hastert joined to shepherd the $40 billion anti-terror appropriation to passage. In both houses, Democrats worked with Republicans to pass a war resolution promising retaliation for the attacks. Initially, Republicans hoped to ram through their own versions of both measures. Instead, they made concessions. "They could have rolled over us," said a very loyal and partisan Democratic leadership aide who resented the Republicans' initial approach but appreciated the spirit of compromise.

Yet eight days after 9/11, the Wall Street Journal editorial page was urging Bush to advance his whole conservative domestic agenda right away because "the bloody attacks have created a unique political moment when Americans of all stars and stripes are uniting behind their president." Drill for oil in the Arctic, the Journal preached, speed up the tax cut -- this while the country was spending tens of billions more than anyone anticipated before the crisis -- and even insist on pushing through confirmation of conservative judges. What did judges have to do with this war? Nothing, but the Journal's editorial writers saw political opportunity: "Democrats in the Senate will hesitate to carry out borkings that clearly undercut Mr. Bush's leadership." Bush, they concluded, should "use the moment to press a broad agenda that he believes is in the national interest."

So much for national unity.

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Democrats lamented that such an approach would inevitably court bitterness. "To use this crisis as a launching pad for objectives that are unrelated" to the war on terror, said Representative Sandy Levin, a Michigan Democrat, "would unravel the bipartisanship that's needed even before it had a chance to work." And that is what happened.

For there was a flip side to the politics of national unity. It was the politics of terrorism. The new war on terror afforded Republicans a chance to regain all the advantages they had enjoyed during the last decade of the Cold War and then lost when it ended.

"Mr. President, the only way you are ever going to get this is to make a speech and scare the hell out of the country." So said Sen. Arthur Vandenberg to President Harry Truman in 1947. Vandenberg, a Republican, was giving Truman advice on how to get Congress to vote for aid to help Turkey and Greece in their fight against Communist insurgents. Vandenberg might as well have been laying out rule number one in the politics of the Cold War. From 1947 until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the country was scared as hell about Soviet power and the threat of nuclear war. And these fears dominated political life.

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If Vandenberg's words have a familiar ring, it's because the new politics of terrorism were remarkably similar to the old politics of the Cold War. Fear once again became a powerful tool and motivator.

Consider President Bush's speech to religious broadcasters in February 2003 as he built the case for war against Iraq. "Chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained," he declared. "Secretly, without fingerprints, Saddam Hussein could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists or help them develop their own. Saddam Hussein is a threat. He's a threat to the United States of America."

Bush scared the hell out of the country, and we followed him to Iraq. Vandenberg might have approved.

Fear provides political actors -- especially incumbents -- with new ways of beating back and intimidating opposition. In the post-9/11 period, Republicans became experts at the political version of Whack-a-Mole. Any time Democrats poked up their heads to challenge the president, especially on terrorism, they were beaten down and accused of lacking patriotism.

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Leading Democrats -- Senators Tom Daschle and John Kerry and Rep. Richard Gephardt -- all received this treatment. Typical was House Speaker Dennis Hastert's comment about Daschle's criticism of Bush's diplomacy before the Iraq War. Daschle, Hastert said, had "come mighty close" to "giv[ing] comfort to our adversaries." That is Cold War talk -- guilt by association. This time, the bad associations were with Saddam and the French, not the Soviets.

The new politics of terrorism also revived the issues that had naturally favored Republicans. For three consecutive presidential elections beginning in 1980, foreign policy toughness was a central pillar of Republican strategy, causing defections to the GOP among neoconservative intellectuals and working-class New Dealers alike.

The importance of the Cold War to Republicans was underscored by the differences between the last election of the Cold War, in 1988, and the first post-Cold War election, in 1992. In both elections, George H.W. Bush was the GOP nominee. In both elections, he won large majorities among voters who listed foreign policy as a primary concern. The big difference? By the time Bush was running for reelection, foreign policy had receded as a central issue for most voters, despite the military victory that Bush had orchestrated in Kuwait. In 1992, most of the country voted on economics and other domestic issues. The Republicans were routed. George Will, the conservative columnist, captured the elder Bush's problem perfectly: "George Bush prepared all his life to conduct the Cold War, only to have it end, leaving him (almost literally) speechless." The president's son was to gain back some of the advantages his father lost when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

A national threat served George W. Bush in another way: When voters look for security, especially from foreign enemies, they look to the executive branch of government. Franklin D. Roosevelt understood this in 1940 as war raged across Europe. His reelection slogan then was, "Don't change horses in midstream." In 1940, the horse was a Democrat; this time, the horse is a Republican.

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There is one important difference between Roosevelt's approach and Bush's. FDR saw fear as something that could paralyze a nation and prevent action. Bush (like Harry Truman and Vandenberg before him) saw fear as moving the nation to action. Each new terrorist alert reminded the nation of the dangers it faced and pushed other issues to the background. A cynic might say that the only thing Republicans had to fear was the end of fear itself. Whatever doubts Americans had about Bush's handling of the economy, polls showed -- at least until 2004 and despite doubts about the Iraq venture -- that they saw him as a strong and steadfast leader facing down the menace of terror.

And because the war on terrorism, like the Cold War, would be long, shadowy and difficult, there was no telling when it would be declared over. The toppling of those Saddam statues was not like the fall of the Berlin Wall. The capture of Saddam was not like the hanging of Mussolini. After Saddam, even after Osama bin Laden, there would be other enemies to slay, other terror cells to break up.

An open-ended campaign served Bush's political interests far better than a shorter but all-consuming conflict. World War II had demanded the total mobilization of American resources and sacrifices from all sectors of society. The sacrifices in the war on terrorism were asked mostly of members of the military, police, and firefighters -- and of few others. Bush could give patriotic speeches on even days and tax-cutting speeches on odd ones. War, it was presumed, could coexist with tax cuts without end.

In the narrowest political terms, Bush was shrewd to avoid total mobilization or anything close to it. Consider, after all, the fate of Winston Churchill. Despite his brilliant leadership, the British prime minister was bounced from office in 1945 by voters whose wartime sacrifice and solidarity encouraged them to embrace the Labor Party's program of social reform. Bush's rhetoric gave nods to the ideas of service and sacrifice but demanded little -- and certainly none at all from his political base. There was no talk from the White House of the sort of social solidarity that paved the way for Labor's victory in Britain.

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Instead, the president and his lieutenants seized advantages none of them had anticipated when Bush assumed office. Thus did a war on terrorism that began in national unity end in partisan division and recrimination.

The breakdown of post-9/11 bipartisanship happened gradually. Even in this heyday of bipartisanship, there was evidence that partisanship would come back. Most disturbing to Democrats, there were signs that Republicans were prepared to use the call to national unity as a means of silencing all criticism of Bush, especially criticism related to the handling of terrorism. If opposition is unpatriotic, what is an opposition to do?

One turning point came in May 2002, when word leaked that an intelligence report on August 6, 2001, had warned of the possibility of terrorist hijackings. For the first time, Bush faced sharp questioning over what he knew and did not know in advance of the events of 9/11. One striking aspect of the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was the discipline (staunch partisans later saw it as timidity) that Democrats showed in not pressing the administration for answers on possible intelligence failures. The report that the president might have had at least some sort of warning brought forth questions that another administration -- Bill Clinton's, for example -- might have faced immediately after the attacks.

The Democrat who faced the sharpest attacks that May was House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. Even Democrats were uneasy with his use of the Watergate era "what-did-the-president-know-and-when-did-he-know-it?" formulation to challenge Bush on the August memo. But the White House's war against any and all Democrats who dared utter a critical word was so furiously partisan that it suggested a defensiveness about Sept. 11 no one knew was there.

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Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, declared that anyone who dared criticize the administration too hard was getting in the way of the war on terrorism. "Incendiary" commentary by opposition politicians, the vice president said, "is thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war."

This effort to suppress dissent was too much even for the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, which flatly labeled Cheney's remarks as "wrong." It added: "It's precisely because we're in a war that we need to find out where we failed."

The most important political episode of 2002 began playing out in June. Bush had resisted establishing a Department of Homeland Security, which was originally proposed by Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman. On June 6, Bush abruptly announced on national television that he had switched sides and now embraced a new department. Why, exactly, and why then?

For weeks, the news had again been dominated by stories reporting the failures of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement in the period leading up to the terrorist attacks. Suddenly, Congress was asking the obvious question: How could this have happened?

It was not a line of inquiry the administration welcomed. Bush's speech endorsing the homeland security department happened to come on the very first day of testimony from whistle-blower Colleen Rowley, the chief legal counsel of the FBI's Minneapolis field office, who had brought her agency's pre-9/11 failures to public attention.

Not surprisingly, Bush overshadowed Rowley.

Dan Balz, chief political reporter for The Washington Post, noted the next day that Bush appeared on television as he was "struggling to regain the initiative" on security issues. While the president retained the confidence of the country, Balz wrote, "his administration is no longer immune from questions or criticism about what happened before Sept. 11, and whether everything is now being done to make the homeland safer.

"In recent weeks," Balz continued, "Bush has faced the first sustained scrutiny since the terrorist attacks." The result: "signs of declining public confidence in the government's ability to combat future terrorism."

Given this opening, did the Democrats respond to Bush's speech with partisanship? No. As they did so often after Sept. 11, they turned the other cheek. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, regularly vilified by the Republicans as a mad partisan, called Bush's remarks "encouraging." Rep. Jane Harman of California, one of the Democrats' leading voices on security, called Bush's proposal "bold and courageous."

The natural move from here would have been authentic bipartisanship to get a bill passed. After all, the differences between Bush and the Democrats were so small that Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) noted that 95 percent of the homeland security bill that was eventually approved after the 2002 elections had been written by Democrats.

But getting a department created before the election was clearly less important to the president than having a campaign issue. He picked a fight over union and civil service protections for its employees that Democrats had inserted into the bill. Republican senators filibustered various efforts to reach a compromise. In late September, Bush went so far as to charge that the Senate -- meaning its Democratic majority -- was "not interested in the security of the American people."

Because Bush succeeded in evading debate over what happened and what was known in the months before 9/11 -- and because Republicans defied tradition in the midterm elections by recapturing the Senate and gaining seats in the House -- Bush's maneuverings could be seen as brilliant politics. But it was brilliance bought at a high price. More than any single episode, the homeland security maneuver broke the spirit of bipartisanship. It permanently alienated Democratic leaders and, eventually, the party's base. This happened before the Iraq War, which is often taken as the central cause of the political divisions in the Bush years. It was not.

In no 2002 contest did the Republicans' use of the homeland security issue more enrage Democrats than Georgia's Senate race. Rep. Saxby Chambliss pilloried Democratic incumbent Max Cleland in a vicious advertisement that used pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein -- surely the ultimate in guilt-by-association -- to portray Cleland as soft on terrorism because of his insistence that the homeland security bill include civil service protections. The ad accused Cleland of voting against Bush's "vital homeland security efforts 11 times," which only meant that, in the legislative maneuverings, Cleland had insisted on the Democrats' version of the bill over Bush's.

What made the implication that Cleland was an ally of terror especially shameful was Cleland's record as a Vietnam War hero who, near the end of his tour, lost an arm and both of his legs in a grenade explosion. "I served this country, and I don't have to prove my patriotism to anybody," said an angry Cleland, who noted that Chambliss used four student deferments to escape service before receiving a medical deferment because of "an old football knee."

It is impossible to overemphasize how the attacks on Cleland hardened Democratic attitudes toward Bush -- who campaigned hard for Chambliss -- and the Republican Party. "This is something that gnaws at us," Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois said months after the election. "A decorated and disabled Vietnam veteran would be discredited because of his stand in the homeland security debate?"

Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu poured Tabasco on her comments about Cleland. "He left three limbs in Vietnam. He's already served his country in more ways than any of us ever will. The president came in with a very personal and very vicious attack, using the homeland security issue to unseat a man who fought on the Armed Services Committee to give the guys in the battlefield everything they need. It didn't mean a thing to this president."

Landrieu had her own issues with Bush. A Democratic hawk, she strongly supported him on Iraq, and called for even higher levels of defense spending than Bush did. She had voted for the Bush tax cut. In an early ad, she boasted of how often she had backed the president.

But the Republicans' campaign against Landrieu confirmed that for Democrats in the House or Senate, it did not matter how they voted or what they said or how patriotic they were. The Bush machine would do all it could to defeat them anyway. A lesson was learned: there was no percentage in making nice with an administration willing to politicize security issues in pursuit of a long-term Republican majority.

Landrieu's victory only hardened her attitude toward Bush. "For Democrats who were trying to work with the president on national security issues and support a more hawkish stand than might seem natural for a Democrat, this president discounts it, ignores it and acts as if it's not relevant," she said after the election. "Any time the country is poised for war and about to engage on behalf of the security of the country, it's very important that the president make that the priority and make everything else come in second. Unfortunately, the president has done exactly the opposite of that."

Yes, Landrieu lamented, the country was deeply polarized along partisan lines. "Unfortunately, the president has earned this polarization," she said. "It hasn't just happened. He pushed it to happen."

Landrieu's victory in the runoff was a counterpoint to Cleland's defeat. If the overall message of the 2002 election was that timidity loses, the message of Landrieu's runoff victory was that toughness wins. Bush threw everything except poisoned gumbo into the fight to defeat her. She hit back where it hurt, on the economy, and threw sugar in the president's eyes. She told the voters in a pro-Bush state that they had a choice between a Bush rubber-stamp and an independent voice. Independence beat Bush.

Landrieu had an advantage over all other Democrats running for the Senate in 2002. Under Louisiana's unusual election system, an open primary is held on Election Day, and if no candidate wins a majority, a runoff is held in December. This gave Landrieu time to digest the meaning of the November results. She defeated her Republican opponent, Suzanne Haik Terrell, because in a single month, she and her campaign changed course.

The Republican Party deluged the state with cash to support fierce attack ads against Landrieu. Even Republicans thought the tone and quantity of the spots bred a backlash. Rep. John Cooksey, a Republican who lost out to Terrell in the first round of voting, told The Advocate of Baton Rouge that Louisiana voters rebelled against "outside money and influence telling them how to vote."

Al Quinlan, Landrieu's pollster, noted the change in tone between the two rounds of voting: "We ran a much more aggressive, tougher race" after realizing that the campaign "had to be sharper, had to be more focused on economic issues." It was easier for Landrieu to push economics because the homeland security issue disappeared between the two rounds of voting. Congress gave Bush the homeland security bill he wanted in a lame duck session after the November election. You could tell how much Republicans longed to keep the issue alive -- and how important it had been to their takeover of the Senate -- when Karen Hughes, Bush's former top aide, came to the state and criticized Landrieu for "taking a whole year to decide that she ought to work with President Bush to protect our homeland."

It didn't work, and Quinlan argued that the attacks on Landrieu for failing to support Bush on everything only reinforced her declaration of independence. It also helped bring Democrats to the polls, especially African-Americans, who had not voted in large numbers in the first round. In the runoff, Landrieu sought black votes with a new energy, and her victory speech played off on an old civil rights saying. "My feet are tired, but my soul is inspired," she declared. Yet even as Landrieu was reassuring African-Americans, she did better among white voters than she had six years earlier. Jobs and political independence proved to be themes that could reach across racial and ideological lines.

Mary Landrieu's lesson, which her party took to heart, was that losers allow their opponents to set the terms of the competition. Winners change the terms and fight back. Democrats took a long time to learn that. The tone of 2003 and 2004, the rise of Howard Dean, the toughening of the response of Democrats such as John Kerry and John Edwards to Bush -- all reflected lessons learned the hard way.


E.J. Dionne Jr.

MORE FROM E.J. Dionne Jr.


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2004 Elections 9/11 Books Democratic Party George W. Bush Nonfiction Republican Party

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