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The Nation | A YEAR AFTER

Attacks Produced a Seismic Shift in the Political Agenda

September 03, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Scouring their speeches from the 2000 election, President Bush and Al Gore, his Democratic rival, can both find moments when they urged increased vigilance against terrorists.

But terrorism wasn't a central, or even a secondary, issue in their fiercely fought campaign. Neither candidate suggested that defending against terrorism would soon become perhaps the preeminent challenge facing the United States. Taxes, education, health care, Social Security, even the moral climate in the capital, all attracted far more attention from the candidates, and from the voters.

That's a measure of how abruptly the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have compelled America to reorder its priorities. Just as the jumbo jets slamming into the World Trade Center ignited fires hot enough to melt steel, the threat exposed on that searing morning has wrenchingly reshaped the agenda in Washington and the terms of political debate.

Across the country, dozens of federal agencies are shifting their focus: stockpiling vaccines, reconstructing the security system at the nation's airports, struggling to build systems to monitor foreign students and visitors, dispatching more inspectors to examine cargo containers in foreign ports and searching for new ways to monitor and disrupt extremist groups at home and abroad. In all, this might be the most comprehensive government mobilization since the frantic months after Pearl Harbor.

"It's historic, and it's stunning in terms of how much we are trying to do at once," said Donald Kettl, a University of Wisconsin political scientist who studies federal administration.

Tom Ridge, director of the White House Office of Homeland Security, said that as many as 100 agencies and departments are involved in the effort to stiffen the nation's defenses. "If you took a look at all these agencies, you will find that ... as of 9/11, if they didn't have a particular individual or team assigned to [terrorism], they do now," he said.

Initially, this massive mobilization in a climate of wartime urgency appeared poised to mute political debate for the indefinite future. That hasn't happened. After a few months of truce, the two major parties again are banging heads in Washington over the full range of domestic issues, and candidates still are scorching each other with attack ads.

But the new threat has changed the playing field on which the parties are contesting their differences. It has compelled Congress to appropriate billions of dollars for the military and homeland defense--spending that over time is likely to squeeze domestic priorities favored by Democrats and drive the parties toward sharpened conflict concerning taxes and the federal budget.

It has increased the relevance of national defense, which faded after the Cold War, as a campaign issue in 2002, and almost certainly will make credibility as commander in chief more important to voters assessing presidential candidates in 2004 and beyond.

And it has greatly strengthened Bush, whose performance in the days after the tragedy appears to have resolved doubts many Americans held about whether he was up to the job of president. Just before the attacks, 40% to 45% of Americans were telling pollsters they doubted Bush had the experience and intellect for the job; today, three-fourths of Americans say they consider him a strong and decisive leader who can manage the government effectively.

"It has given him a credibility and a legitimacy that was questionable before the attacks," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, an independent polling group. "He became every bit a legitimate president, and questions about the 2000 election and his gravitas just disappeared."

As one dividend for the White House, the heightened sense of vulnerability and increased trust in Bush's foreign policy judgment has created a backdrop that likely will make it tougher for domestic critics to block an invasion of Iraq, if Bush chooses to launch one.

At a more fundamental level, the powerful emotions that bound together the country after the tragedy suggested Americans still have a greater sense of connection than many social critics on the left and right believed--especially after the bitter presidential election that showed the country divided almost exactly in half between political coalitions defined mostly by their cultural differences.

That hasn't erased political conflict about issues such as gun control, abortion or gay rights. But the surge of national unity after Sept. 11 may put these disputes in a different perspective by showing how much common ground Americans still share around those fault lines.

"It's clear to me that America's self-perception has changed," one senior White House official said. "There is a feeling that if you scratch an American, there's an elemental decency beneath. That's a source of national unity, and I think it's going to be pretty durable."

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