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.
By 2008, Bush's approval rating was microscopic, and he was considered politically toxic. The Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, found himself in the unique position of running a general-election presidential campaign that took aim at his own party's incumbent. The Democratic nominee, Senator Obama, ran against the Bush administration virtually across the board, including on national security.
When the Obama administration took office after a resounding electoral victory, the new president trumpeted the new direction he would take on terrorism and foreign affairs. His efforts appeared so derogatory toward the Bush administration's approach that they prompted Juan Zarate, President Bush's counterterrorism advisor, to tell NPR, "I don't think the administration has helped themselves, or frankly helped the country, by trying so hard to paint their policies as being so radically different from the past. They're not, and for the sake of the country they shouldn't be."
Zarate was right. Although Obama swore on the campaign trail that his national security efforts would differ markedly from those of his predecessor, Obama's counterterrorism policies have largely been a continuation of those forged during the last two years of the Bush administration. Some conservative pundits still attempt to show Obama's overarching weakness on national security, and a select few portray him as dangerous, but there is a growing awareness among analysts of the continuity between Bush and Obama on counterterrorism policy.
Indeed, national security was marginal as an issue in the 2010 midterm election. One Republican pollster noted during that campaign that the economy "dwarfs everything. It's sort of like looking at a house and there's all these things that need repair, but if the roof's on fire, all these things are secondary. Jobs and the economy are the equivalent of the fire on the roof."
From 2002 through 2008, the politicians and parties that benefited from their politicization of terrorism and national security got a number of significant substantive points wrong. In 2002, the Republicans were wrong to politicize the issue in the first place. Moreover, the midterm results were viewed by many as a mandate for the disastrous invasion of Iraq. In 2004, President Bush's winning campaign insisted that the country was safer due to this invasion, and that the administration would change neither its decision to go to war nor its execution of the conflict if given the opportunity. Not only did the invasion not make the United States safer, but the situation in Iraq would not improve until the administration dramatically changed its approach.