Bipartisan Crises

August Pollack thinks my suggestion that whichever party controls the Oval Office during a national crisis can use it to massively enhance their image on national security is implausible. His counter-argument, basically, is that if 9/11 happened in 1998, Republicans would have mauled Clinton over it:

They would have brought up Waco, clearly making subtle allusions that Clinton had faced previous failures in combating hostile anti-governmental militias. They would have screamed that Clinton had allowed terrorists to attack the same building twice during his presidency. And they most certainly would have suggested that the attacks were a result of the missle strikes on Sudan a year earlier, which he clearly only ordered to Wag the Dog on the Lewinsky testimony. That an embattled Clinton- who was even higher in the polls than Bush was on 9/10/01- would have faced equal complacency from the opposition Senate leadership- is fantasy.

Maybe so, but remember, post-McVeigh, Clinton's job approval shot up six points and stayed there for two months. It was the first time he'd passed 50% in over a year. And 1995 was when he was at his most embattled, and Gingrich and his forces approaching their apex, so those weren't good times for Bill. But the argument August is making relies on Republican's exploiting events from the (at this point) 6-year Clinton presidency to sow doubt about Clinton's ability to effectively respond. Putting aside the question of whether that would work (I don't think it would -- the rally-round-the-flag impulse is a very, very strong force), he's making an apples-to-oranges comparison. Perceptions of Clinton, by that point, were relatively fixed. I tend to think a transformative event like 9/11 could have changed them, but whatever.

Conversely, Gore and Bush were, to varying extents, unknown quantities. Gore had never been top dawg, so no one was certain what sort of leadership he'd bring to bear, and Bush was even more untested. And, in the months leading up to 9/11, most felt his presidency something of a flop, an interim measure until both parties could shake off the Clinton hangover and run some decent candidates. Then, America is attacked, and suddenly the presidential placeholder enters a telephone booth and emerges, in Digby's words, as Commander Codpiece. That moment created the Bush persona. That's because foreign policy, at least in the way the media reports it, is entirely contained within the person of the president. Screw the parties, screw the cabinets, it's all about the man himself. That's why Democrats are still trying to shake the weakness of Carter and Clinton's initial lack of focus (Kosovo, which went quite well, was never a major event on the homefront, and so it never totally triumphed over the Lewinsky scandal, which was), while Republicans get to rest on the laurels of Reagan's rhetoric and the ass-kicking Bush 41 handed to Hussein.

Had Gore been in office on 9/11, he would have comforted the country, mobilized the army, and shot the shit out of Afghanistan. He would have committed massive numbers of troops to the hunt for bin-Laden and focused his energies on al-Qaeda. I can say that with confidence because those were the actions any vaguely intelligent human being with access to an intelligence report would have taken. And Gore would have reaped the same benefits that Bush did, but he wouldn't have squandered them on an ideological attack on Iraq. If Republicans had dared step out of line in the post-9/11 days, the howls of protest from a shaken and scared country with no stomach for partisan division would have ensured they didn't make the mistake twice.

I'm as impressed with the Republican media machine as anybody, but let's not mistake an effective political operation for a dwelling place of Gods. They're losing on Social Security, they lost the vote in 2000, they lost two elections against Bill Clinton (and he never got the benefit of standing astride a major war), and they barely reelected their incumbent in 2004. Their guys are good, but not overwhelmingly so. And, like everybody else, they're still subject to the laws of politics. Don't touch Social Security, it'll burn you. Don't fuck with the elderly, they'll vote against you. Don't mess with the Hispanics, they'll turn on you. And don't screw with the President in a time of war, Americans don't want to hear it. August says they would have smashed Bill Clinton because of his transgressions and past events, but even with all that water forming a whirlpool under the bridge, all DeLay's horses and all DeLay's men couldn't touch Clinton's approval ratings during the war in Kosovo. And if they couldn't lay a glove on him during a humanitarian intervention that enjoyed sparse support, they surely wouldn't have had a chance among a scared public looking to their president for comfort. So Gore, Clinton, Bush, whomever -- any leader reasonably aware of the American public's need for toughness and retaliation would have been richly rewarded in the aftermath of 9/11. The Republican media machine might have us convinced that they can alter the laws of politics, but thus far, they've shown no ability to do so.