Terrorism was the key to this victory. Summarizing what many commentators had come to realize, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote, "Why did the Democrats lose? Forget the tactics. Forget the fundraising. Forget even the President's popularity. This election was about Sept. 11."
Terrorism and national security would continue to be a critical, divisive issue for the next few elections. It was clear from the outset that terrorism would factor heavily in the 2004 campaign. The Republicans' choice of New York City as the location for that year's Republican National Convention and their decision to hold it in September were obvious references. Terrorism was invoked almost constantly throughout the convention. In a speech that mentioned terror or terrorism forty-four times, and 9/11 eleven times, Rudy Giuliani said, "President Bush sees world terrorism for the evil that it is. [Democratic nominee] John Kerry has no such clear, precise and consistent vision."
Although the Iraq War helped the Republicans in 2002, by 2004 the public perception was mixed. The death toll and economic costs of the war were mounting, and an intensive search had failed to unearth evidence that Saddam Hussein had rebuilt his nuclear weapons program. Kerry campaigned on the idea that the invasion had been "the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time."
President Bush's campaign would not back down from its claim that the Iraq War had been good for America. Instead, President Bush argued that the invasion of Iraq made America safer. In the first of three presidential debates, he argued that one critical lesson of 9/11 was to "take threats seriously, before they fully materialize." Because of the invasion of Iraq, he said, "Saddam Hussein now sits in a prison cell. America and the world are safer for it." Later in the debate, Bush said that Kerry's criticism of the Iraq War reflected a "pre-September 11th mentality, the hope that somehow resolutions and failed inspections would make this world a more peaceful place."
For his own part, Kerry did himself few favors on these issues. For example, the Democrats were eager to capitalize on the popularity of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, a documentary critiquing the Iraq War. Moore spoke at several events at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, and the cameras caught him sitting next to former president Jimmy Carter at one point. The problem is that Moore was more than just an antiwar filmmaker. In one statement on his personal website, posted about three months before the convention, he wrote: "The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not 'insurgents' or 'terrorists' or 'The Enemy.' They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow--and they will win. Get it, Mr. Bush?" Rather than simply disagreeing with the war, this post celebrated insurgents who were killing American forces--and it generated justifiable controversy. Predictably, the image of Moore sitting next to Carter featured prominently on conservative cable news shows, making the concerns that the Bush campaign raised about Kerry's seriousness on national security issues seem credible to many voters.
On October 29, mere days before the election, Osama bin Laden appeared in a video address that was broadcast on the Al Jazeera Arabic-language satellite station. Obviously timed to coincide with the U.S. election, bin Laden addressed the American people. In the speech, he boasted that al Qaeda was winning its war against the United States. The primary reason he gave was the economics of the fight and his group's strategy of "bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy."
The voting public was largely uninterested in the substance of bin Laden's speech. Rather, the most significant aspect was that the video showed that bin Laden was still alive. Before that, he featured infrequently in al Qaeda's propaganda, and it had been years since he'd appeared in a video, leading many commentators to believe that he had been killed. Bin Laden's video dominated the news cycle in the days leading up to the election, again putting national security at the forefront of voters' minds.
President Bush won the election in 2004, and the GOP again made gains in both the House and the Senate. Party insiders correctly pointed to national security as a critical issue.
But by 2006, national security issues had been transformed from a significant Republican advantage into a thorn in the party's side. The overarching reason was the Iraq War. Bloodshed markedly increased in that country during the course of the year, and many observers thought it was mired in civil war. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been able to take and hold territory. It became the dominant player in Iraq's expansive Anbar province and was able to erect a governing structure in the city of Mosul.
As the situation deteriorated, the Democrats realized that this time the Republicans were vulnerable on terrorism and national security. Democratic senator Evan Bayh of Indiana said in February 2006 that "for both substantive and political reasons," the Democrats should take the Republicans on over terrorism and national security. Key Democratic politicians promised to push for immediate withdrawal from Iraq.
Sure enough, campaigning on national security issues again paid off in 2006, this time for the Democrats, who took back the House and Senate. According to late November 2006 polling data from the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of Americans considered the Iraq War one of the top two issues in the election.
Although Iraq had been central to the GOP's defeat, President Bush did not hasten to withdraw. Instead, he announced a "surge," an increase in the presence of American soldiers in an attempt to clear out al Qaeda's strongholds and diminish sectarian violence. There was nothing wrong with the Democrats campaigning on national security: the Iraq War was incredibly costly, and there was a strong argument for political accountability. But many Democrats went beyond this, arguing that Bush's surge ignored their "mandate" to get the U.S. military out of Iraq as soon as possible.
For example, Representative Dale Kildee of Michigan said, "President Bush either did not get or did not understand the message the American people sent last November. Before the end of this year, United States troops should be redeployed and their efforts focused on support and training the Iraqi Security Forces."
Indeed, one of the surge's biggest critics was Illinois senator Barack Obama. On January 10, 2007, as the surge was announced, Obama said, "I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse." Obama swore that he would "actively oppose the president's proposal."
Ultimately, the surge worked. Although serious questions remain as the United States draws down its troops, President Bush made the right decision by undertaking a surge rather than a withdrawal. This is particularly true when one recalls the dark days of 2007, when Iraq was wracked by sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing, and AQI was able to carve out geographic safe havens. Obama himself conceded in a September 2008 interview with Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, "I think that the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated.... It's succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."
National security and terrorism was not the key election issue in either 2008 or 2010 that it had been previously; the September 2008 financial crisis caused economic issues to overshadow everything else. This does not mean, however, that the issue was entirely absent.