New York Senator Hillary Clinton has been catching flack from her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination after her recent suggestion that another major terrorist strike against the United States would help the Republican Party.
“It’s a horrible prospect to ask yourself, ‘What if? What if?'” she told an audience in Concord, New Hampshire. “But, if certain things happen between now and the election, particularly with respect to terrorism, that will automatically give the Republicans an advantage again, no matter how badly they have mishandled it, no matter how much more dangerous they have made the world.”
Her opponents pounced. “Frankly,” Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd shot back, “I find it tasteless to discuss political implications when talking about a potential terrorist attack on the United States.”
Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico insisted, “We shouldn’t be thinking about terrorism in terms of its domestic political consequences; we should be protecting the country from terrorists.”
“I don’t agree that Republicans would have an advantage,” former North Carolina Senator John Edwards countered. “I would never cede that….The focus should not be on politics or on votes. The focus is going to have to be on what will have to be done to unite America to make the American people safe.”
Illinois Senator Barack Obama got in a zinger too, even as he attempted to remain above the fray: “No one in politics regardless of party should play politics with an issue that is as grave as our national security.”
On the one hand, Clinton’s opponents are right; it is uncomfortable to speculate on the political fallout of the violent deaths of thousands of Americans. On the other hand, Clinton is likely right in her original assessment. Americans tend to rally ’round the flag at moments of national crisis, which might mean a surge of support for President Bush and his party.
In light of that calculus, however, an even squirmier question came to mind as I listened to the candidates back and forth on the issue. Namely: In the event of another catastrophic attack, how many Democratic partisans would conclude that President Bush was indeed behind the attack? If the idea seems farfetched, consider that an August 2004 Zogby poll found that 49 percent of New York City residents actually believed that members of the Bush Administration “knew in advance that attacks were planned on or around September 11, 2001, and that they consciously failed to act.”
The columnist Charles Krauthammer famously described the seething hatred of the President among Democrats as “Bush Derangement Syndrome.” It would therefore be an interesting sanity check if, at the next Democratic presidential debate, the candidates were asked whether they believed President Bush conspired in, or knew in advance of, the events of September 11th 2001.
That would, I think, make for an especially revealing show-of-hands question, akin to the moment in the first Republican debate in which the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they believed in evolution. If you’re going after the nomination, do you give the intellectually defensible answer — and risk alienating the more rabid elements of your constituency — or do you toss the party faithful the hunk of red meat they crave?
Given the passions of the Democratic base, could any current Democratic presidential hopeful afford not to hedge?