What about 9/11? Having read the comments thus far — and let us say right away that this is a very, very sharp crowd — we’ve decided that three issues require immediate elaboration: the role of 9/11, our definition of the center, and the prospects for a big reversal in the near future. In this post, we want to respond to David Bailey’s useful reminder that “[w]hatever other tools the GOP have had on their side to push an extreme agenda in an evenly-divided government, let’s not forget 9/11.” Stay tuned on subjects #2 and #3.
First, it is certainly true that, as frankly0 nicely puts it, “Bush’s Presidency was going nowhere before 9/11, stumbling out of a honeymoon with mediocre approval ratings.” (In many ways, the recent fall in Bush’s ratings simply brings him back to the bottom-feeding regions where he was mired before 9/11.) Clearly, Bush in particular and Republicans in general have been bolstered by concerns about terrorism. And clearly, they have used the national security card to advance their broader policy agenda. (We’re reminded of Frank Luntz’s recent advice to “contextualize the deficit inside of 9/11.”) The most important political effect of 9/11 so far has been to create a bigger electoral “margin of error” for Republicans — which, in our 50/50 nation, is certainly worth a lot. (We will explain in later posts, apropos of Nick Kaufman’s helpful comments, how the electoral map is heavily tilted in their favor even without the 9/11 halo.)
Still, the Republican have been building the foundations of their current political power for more than a decade. Much of the organizational infrastructure and strategies of the party go back to the mid-1990s, well before the terrible attacks of 9/11. And even some of the most striking recent forays of the party off center — most notably, the tax cuts of 2001 and the concerted effort to impeach President Clinton — predate the 9/11 attacks.
Another thing that’s often missed is that the nerve center of the contemporary Republican Party on domestic policy is Congress, not the White House. We’ll have more to say about this — a central theme of our book — and what it means for the prospects for a big political reversal in response to Bush’s troubles. But for now, we simply want to note that the “Commander in Chief” mantle is one worn by Bush, not by congressional Republicans. And yet, remember it was Bush qua Commander in Chief who struggled in 2004, winning the narrowest reelection victory of an incumbent president since Woodrow Wilson. Meanwhile, almost all GOP (and Democratic) congressional incumbents coasted to victory without breaking a sweat — which, again, suggests that something more is at work.
Finally, it’s also worth doubting the all-purpose power of the national security card — absent the deeper changes we take up in the book. Wars and foreign threats have rarely helped presidential parties with their domestic agenda in the past. Yes, during such times, presidents are granted substantial latitude in foreign affairs. Historically, however, this latitude hasn’t carried over to domestic policy. War presidents often gain electoral strength (though not always). But neither they nor their congressional allies have historically found it easier to advance their domestic agenda. Just ask FDR, Truman, and LBJ.
In our view, then, the transformed national security climate has mostly helped to intensify trends already underway, not created GOP advantage out of whole cloth. Even with “the 9/11 effect,” the question still remains: How has the GOP has managed to keep the divisive domestic side of their agenda from provoking backlash or gridlock? In our view, the key to that has been coordination and what it allows the GOP to do.