After the Republican victories in 2004, pundits puzzled over the reason the Democrats failed to take either Congress or the White House. Was it gay marriage? Was it the tax cuts? Was it John Kerry's swift boat?
Jim Geraghty, who covered the race for National Review, thinks the election was decided three years before polls opened: on September 11, 2001. In Voting to Kill: How 9/11 Launched the Era of Republican Leadership (Touchstone), Geraghty argues that the terrorist attacks reshaped the American electorate, lifting the GOP to majority status over a Democratic Party that, as the 2006 midterm vote approaches, still can't convince voters that it will keep them safe. For all of the controversy over the war in Iraq and civil liberties in the U.S., Geraghty believes the terrorism issue will keep the Republicans in charge for years to come.
Assistant Editor David Weigel spoke with Geraghty in August.
Q: Why didn't 9/11 shake voters' confidence in Republican competence and send them scrambling to the Democrats?
A: 9/11 did not occur in a vacuum. For most of the past three decades, Democrats have trailed the GOP when voters were asked who they trusted more on national security. For Republicans, 9/11 was followed by a lot of almost iconic moments that reinforced this image: Bush speaking to firefighters amidst the rubble, the fairly rapid toppling of the Taliban. It's easy to forget that at one point the country loved the fact that Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney came across as such unsentimental, ruthless SOBs.
Q: Don't the more intrusive, domestic components of Republican governance—domestic spying, the PATRIOT Act—pose a risk of splitting the Republican coalition?
A: It certainly has the potential, but I don't think it's happened yet. Although if you want to see a conservative have a seizure, ask him if he's OK with the powers Ashcroft had or Gonzales has in the hands of, say, Janet Reno.
I think for the public to turn against these programs, they'll need to see a case of clear-cut abuse, something akin to breaking into the Watergate. Otherwise, on many of these issues —wiretapping, deploying radiation detectors near mosques, the treatment of detainees in Gitmo—the attitude of at least a small majority of Americans is, "Do what you have to do to make sure there's not another attack like 9/11."
Q: Doesn't the increasing unpopularity of the war in Iraq pose the risk of dynamiting the Republican majority?
A: Certainly, but there's a reasonable amount of unity that there's no point in withdrawing troops until there's a sense that what will remain will be better for U.S. national security. Otherwise, we may find U.S. troops returning in 2007 or later to attack Al Qaeda training camps that have arisen in the chaos of the failed state.