The 9/11 attacks, however, transformed the political landscape. Although the economy had been voters' predominant concern until terrorists struck the United States, Gallup polling from January to June 2002 consistently found that terrorism and national security had eclipsed the economy as the issue voters cared about most. And if terrorism was on voters' minds, this was good for the Republicans. An August 2002 Gallup analysis found that Republicans enjoyed a commanding nine point lead among voters who considered terrorism to be the most important issue.
The Republicans exploited this advantage. During the campaign Karl Rove, a senior adviser to President Bush, misplaced a computer disk that contained his PowerPoint presentations about the upcoming midterm election. One piece of advice to candidates was that they should "focus on the war." Rove's advice proved controversial once the public learned of it, but the issue resonated with voters, as did President Bush's focus on selling the coming Iraq War during the campaign.
"We ought not to politicize this war," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle responded. "We ought not to politicize the rhetoric about war and life and death." (Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott responded to Daschle with a bizarre non sequitur: "Who is the enemy here, the president of the United States or Saddam Hussein?")
The bottom line is that Daschle was right: politicizing national security when there was general agreement between Republicans and Democrats on how to combat terrorism was bad for the country. But even though Daschle was right philosophically, the Republicans read national politics correctly. They regained control of the Senate in 2002, picked up five seats in the House, outperformed expectations in the gubernatorial races, and even gained in state legislatures. The GOP's overwhelming victory was not just unexpected but also historic: not since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 had a president's party made gains in both the House and Senate during the midterm election of his first term.
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.