Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Voting to kill

Commentary by David Reinhard


David Reinhard

First, a little confession: I spent the fifth anniversary of 9/11 reading Jim Geraghty's "Voting to Kill: How 9/11 Launched the Era of Republican Leadership." I mention this only because spending the day contemplating 9/11's political impact seems almost sacrilegious. But that's the extent of my confession. The fact is Geraghty's new book is great stuff. The reporting is fresh, the analysis rigorous and the writing snappy.

This fall may seem like a bad time to bring out a book with this subtitle, what with the media eyeing a Democratic wave that will wash over an Iraq-quagmired president and Congress, and Capitol Hill Democrats eyeing their committee chairmanships. But a few things work in Geraghty's favor.

First, he has the analytical chops and cool temperament—he faces the challenge right up front—to bring this off. As a National Review contributing editor, his "The Kerry Spot" blog proved an indispensable source of no-nonsense political dope in 2004.

Second, as he shows, we've been here before, sort of. In 2002, Democrats were pooh-poohing the impact of 9/11, and pollsters were predicting Democrats would win Senate seats in Minnesota, Colorado and Georgia. In 2004, Bush's Iraq war woes, a united Democratic Party with more cash to spend than Republicans and a fired-up grass roots made the presidential election "John Kerry's to lose."

What happened? 9/11 happened and Democrats responded, Geraghty argues, in ways that reinforced their post-1960s street-rep on national defense.

But didn't social issues (gay marriage) bury Kerry? Not so fast. Geraghty points out that the chunk of voters citing moral values as their top issue was the same as in 2000. So was the evangelical vote. Yes, 22 percent of the electorate were values voters, and 80 percent of them voted for Bush. But 19 percent cited terrorism as their top issue, and 86 percent of them backed Bush.

"Security moms" mattered, despite the fact that Democratic pollsters spent 2004 denying their existence. Bush gained 10 points among white women. Geraghty looks at the big Bush gains in communities close to New York City. In four years, the party breakdown went from 39-35 percent Democrat-Republican to 37-37. "Perhaps that 2 percent," he writes, "represents those 9/11 Republicans."

Why aren't books about 9/11 Democrats now appearing? Because the party spent the years since 9/11 bolstering a weak-on-defense, blame-America-first image. Geraghty reprises the whacked-out pronouncements that started before the smoke cleared from ground zero. Yes, both parties have officials and celebrity allies who say stupid stuff, but he notes that Republicans exile theirs (Ann Coulter, Rep. John Cooksey). Democrats don't (Rep. Jim McDermott).

Indeed, some become the toast of the party. Two days after Sept. 11, Michael Moore said we had "orphaned so many children, tens of thousands around the world with our taxpayer-funded terrorism." Two years later he said, "There's no terrorist threat." Three years later he likened Iraqi insurgents to the American Revolution's Minutemen and dished up conspiracy theories in "Fahrenheit 9/11." All then became the rage of the 2004 Democratic convention, with a seat in ex-President Carter's box. Not good.

"Kerry was dragged down by an enduring and, to a large part, true set of negative stereotypes about the party. Until we can fix that and convince Americans that ... we are a party determined and willing and strong enough and brave enough to keep them safe, we're going to keep getting these results on the national level." That's not Geraghty; that's Jim Margolis, Kerry's advertising strategist.

Kerry's musings on terrorism ("We need to get terrorism down to the level where its manageable, like organized crime") only made matters worse.

Will terrorism matter this November? Will the Iraq war trump the war on terror and put Democrats back in control of Congress?

"Predicting the long-term political impact of Iraq is difficult in the best of circumstances ..." Geraghty writes. "But let's observe that recent difficulties in Iraq have provided too many Democrats a chance to vent their worst instincts."

So, no predictions, just plenty of insight and analysis. Which, depending on this election's results, could make Jim Geraghty's "Voting to Kill" a fascinating period piece or a useful self-help guide for Democrats.

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