It's perilously close to conventional wisdom in the media that al-Qaeda wants John Kerry to win the November election. In the next 10 weeks, get ready for a concerted effort by the right to fix that notion in place.
The meme originated, unsurprisingly, with the usual right-wing suspects. Rush Limbaugh kicked things off right after the election-eve terrorist bombings in Spain, asserting on March 15 that terrorists “want Kerry, they want the Democrats in power. They'd love that -- I mean, based simply on what they're saying and how they're reacting to what happened in Spain.”
In June, Dick Morris wrote a New York Post column with the characteristically subtle headline “Terrorists for Kerry.” Morris explained to his readers that “the real test of American resolve will not be our willingness to stay in Iraq, but our desire to keep [George W.] Bush in office … . It is obvious that Osama [bin Laden] and his allies all want Bush out. It might profit Bush's supporters (though not the president himself) to point out this obvious fact to the American people.”
Needless to say, Bush's supporters have been happy to heed the call (and MediaMatters.org has carried out the thankless task of compiling all such statements comprehensively).
The idea got a lot of encouragement from government officials, both anonymous and named. On April 18, CNN's Suzanne Malveaux paraphrased National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice as saying that al-Qaeda “may have looked at the situation in Spain, where you simply had -- essentially had a pro-American, pro-Iraq war leader ousted for someone who took the opposite position." A month later, another CNN correspondent, Kelli Arena, made her now-notorious remark about there being “some speculation that al-Qaeda believes it has a better chance of winning in Iraq if John Kerry is in the White House.”
Arena cited no source for that speculation, but by June she might have been able to stake her claim on the authority of the president himself. Bush explained to Tom Brokaw on June 6 how worrisome it was “that the al-Qaeda killed innocent people in Spain, and the al-Qaeda leadership think that they affected the outcome of the election … . It worries me that the al-Qaeda leadership says, ‘Well, we may be able to affect the election of the United States. We may be able to, you know, change the outcome of democracy by killing.'”
Nobody in government rendered the claim more explicit (or ludicrous) than an unnamed U.S. intelligence official quoted last week in a breathless Washington Times piece. According to the official, terrorists had adopted the mantra of pragmatic Democrats: "The view of al Qaeda is ‘anybody but Bush.'”
Meanwhile, Chris Matthews has brooked no comparisons among mainstream pundits in his penchant for raising the “bin Laden for Kerry” specter. On July 8, he asked Senator John Breaux what would happen if it turned out that al-Qaeda was “trying to get people to vote Democrat for president to basically make their case worldwide? Doesn't it put your party in a terrible position of having al-Qaeda rooting for you?" He revived the same line of questioning a month later on his show.
Anyone out there think we've heard the last of this? As the campaign gets more heated, so will the inclination of the Bush team and its right-wing media surrogates to amplify the fear of a terrorist attack and insinuate that what the terrorists really want is to derail Bush's re-election. If they don't want to get mau-maued any more than they already have, mainstream journalists will want to keep a few things in mind.
First off, attempts to draw conclusions about the upcoming election from what happened in Madrid stem from two faulty assumptions about that attack. The first is that al-Qaeda attacked Spain because of the country's involvement in Iraq; according to Lawrence Wright's August 2 New Yorker article “The Terror Web,” terrorists may have been plotting a bombing in Spain since late 2000. The second, more significant misassumption is that Spanish voters threw out the Populist Party government of José María Aznar because they were heeding the perceived message of the terrorists; in fact, it appears as likely that the Aznar government's early attempts to pin blame for the attacks on Basque terrorists eroded trust in the candidate enough to move a few percentage points to the Socialists.
More to the point, responsible journalists will want to remind themselves that there is not a shred of credible evidence documenting al-Qaeda's preferences in the election one way or the other. This shouldn't be a shock; after all, the ideological differences between the two major American parties probably aren't quite sufficient in scope to sway the hearts of radical Islamic theocrats.
But hey, forget ideology for a moment and think strategy. Let's speculate: If you were bin Laden, and you had enjoyed a year and a half respite from America's full, undivided attention, as special ops forces, intelligence operatives, and spy satellites were diverted from the pursuit of al-Qaeda to the invasion of Iraq, for which candidate might you feel the most gratitude? If you were bin Laden, and had watched the United States turn its invasion of Iraq into a cause célèbre for Islamic terrorists worldwide, which candidate might you deem the most useful and effective as a recruiting tool for your organization?
None of this is rocket science. The question for the mainstream media in the next few months is whether they can withstand the barrage of right-wing insinuations, administration speculation, color-coded alerts, and curiously timed press conferences designed to filter this single notion -- that al-Qaeda wants our president to lose the election -- into the regular stream of campaign coverage. It's a noxious claim, and the media shouldn't swallow it.
Sam Rosenfeld is a writer for the online edition of The American Prospect.