9/11: 20 years later

What 9/11 Did to the Democratic Party

John Kerry reports for duty at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Photo: Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Immediately after the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, members of Congress were hurried out of the Capitol into the surrounding neighborhood. I watched many of them walking quickly down Pennsylvania Avenue SE as my co-workers and I stared silently at the Capitol dome, half-expecting it to be attacked, as some think the terrorists had planned to do before United Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania. That evening, as the imminent threat subsided, many of these same members came together on the Capitol steps to sing, apparently without prompting or premeditation, “God Bless America.”

This began a period in which American politics was dominated by the traumatized reaction to the September 11 attacks, with virtually all Democrats joining Republicans in backing the Bush administration’s retaliatory actions against the Afghan Taliban government, which had harbored much of Al Qaeda’s leadership. On September 14, a formal authorization of military force swept through the Senate unanimously and drew just one dissenting vote (that of California Democrat Barbara Lee) in the House. While Bush’s decision to expand his “global war on terror” beyond Afghanistan to Iraq lost a lot of Democratic and even some Republican support, the fear of looking weak on national security gripped much of the Donkey Party up to and beyond the 2004 presidential election — a tortured legacy that remains with us to this day.

Before the Storm

The climate of quasi-militarism that suffused U.S. politics after 9/11 was an abrupt change in the weather. Americans were generally thought to have overcome the “Vietnam Syndrome” of reflexive hostility to foreign military interventions. But any open-mindedness to war was limited to conflicts involving quick and successful engagements with limited U.S. casualties, such as the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and the NATO Kosovo mission of 1998–99.

During the months prior to 9/11, the United States seemed to be fully enjoying the “peace dividend” of reduced defense costs and the end a decade earlier of international commitments associated with the Cold War. I can recall receiving a briefing on a private national poll that concluded there was no outstanding international issue, involving either security or commerce, that was likely to affect voting decisions by any significant bloc in the electorate. The major parties were not notably divided on matters of war and peace; nor were there big intra-party differences. Reflexively anti-Clinton Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to oppose the last prior military engagement, in Kosovo. And in the 2000 presidential contest, despite posturing a bit about the allegedly poor state of military preparedness under Clinton, George W. Bush also argued for greater “humility” in U.S. foreign policy. The avenging warlord Bush would become within a year of his inauguration was nowhere in sight, except perhaps as a glimmer in his vice-president’s eye.

Bush’s pre-9/11 record as president was focused entirely on a domestic agenda designed to satisfy both loyal Republican constituencies and selected swing voters. On the eve of the attacks Bush’s job approval rating stood at 51 percent. By September 22, it had hit 90 percent, the highest Gallup has every recorded (and a point higher than his father’s at the close of the Persian Gulf War).

The Loyal Opposition Splits Over Iraq

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan achieved its initial goals quickly, with the Taliban being driven from power in less than two months. It was not evident then that Operation Enduring Freedom had devolved into a combined nation-building-and-counter-insurgency effort that would last 20 years and end in failure. The American mission in that country enjoyed near-universal support in both parties until well into the Obama administration and (as we will see) particularly intense support from Democrats.

But soon after Kabul was “liberated,” the Bush administration shifted its attention to Iraq. Bush’s advisers believed that the GWOT and its impact on both public opinion and the opposition party might enable them to undertake an attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime that many of them had favored since the president’s father decided against attempting a regime change at the end of the Gulf War. The administration’s decision to seek a formal congressional authorization for an invasion of Iraq may have in part represented a strategy to split (and if possible, co-opt) Democrats immediately prior to the 2002 midterm elections. If so, it worked.

In the run-up to the October 2002 authorization vote in Congress, the ranking Democrat (Joe Biden) and Republican (Dick Lugar) on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee devised a compromise that would have probably halted the rush to war by creating hoops Bush would have to jump through before sending in the troops. Conceivably, it might have avoided an invasion altogether. But at the crucial juncture, Biden had trouble getting antiwar Senate Democrats to support the compromise. And then, in anticipation of a 2004 presidential run, House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt stabbed Biden in the back by appearing (along with another putative 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Lieberman, who had long pined for an Iraq invasion) with Bush in a Rose Garden event endorsing the president’s preference: a de facto blank check version of the authorization. As George Packer noted a bit later, the moment perfectly reflected what 9/11 had done to the Democratic Party:

The two complementary tendencies that doomed [Biden’s] effort on Iraq have characterized Democrats since the war on terrorism began: on one side, the urge to take cover under Republican policies in order not to be labelled weak; on the other, a rigid opposition that invokes moral principle but often leads to the very results it seeks to prevent.

Ultimately, Democrats were deeply split on Bush’s war authorization. A majority (126 to 81) of House Democrats voted against it, while a majority of Senate Democrats (29 to 21) voted for it. Aside from Gephardt and Lieberman, supporters of the measure included all the Democratic senators who would run for president in 2004 and 2008: Biden plus Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, and John Kerry.

The Rise of “Security Moms”

Any hope the Democratic “Iraq hawks” might have harbored of positioning the party to overcome Bush’s popularity was dispelled by the 2002 elections. For only the second time since 1934, the president’s party gained House seats in a midterm. And for the first time ever, the president’s party flipped control of a congressional chamber — the Senate — in a midterm.

Postelection analysis of the upset dwelled heavily on national security issues, as Peter Beinart recalled later, with a certain U.S. senator as his witness:

Democrats got creamed in midterm elections that year because the women voters they had relied on throughout the Clinton years deserted them. In 2000, women favored Democratic congressional candidates by nine points. In 2002, that advantage disappeared entirely. The biggest reason: 9/11. In polls that year, according to Gallup, women consistently expressed more fear of terrorism that men. And that fear pushed them toward the GOP, which they trusted far more to keep the nation safe. As then-Senator Joe Biden declared after his party’s midterm shellacking, “Soccer moms are security moms now.”

The campaign that seemed to exemplify the Democratic dilemma in 2002 was in Georgia. U.S. Senator Max Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in combat in Vietnam, was defeated by Republican Saxby Chambliss after a savage campaign in which the incumbent was pounded relentlessly for favoring a “weak” homeland-security bill written by none other than Joe Lieberman, who, in Jeffrey Toobin’s apt words, had managed to serve “simultaneously as a punching bag and a cheerleader for the Bush White House.”

The 2002 results hung over the 2004 Democratic presidential-nominating contest like a cloud of nerve gas. Before anti–Iraq War voters began to consolidate behind Vermont Governor Howard Dean (who did not have the handicap of a voting record on war and peace), many “netroots” activists initially fell in love with Wesley Clark, a NATO commander during the Kosovo operation who opposed the war. Clark would be the prototype for antiwar Democratic candidates in the near future. But the eventual nominee, John Kerry, benefited enormously from his own record of military heroism in Vietnam, with his later high-profile anti–Vietnam War protest activity nicely rounding out his résumé.

The Kerry general-election campaign would show better than any one example how bedeviled Democrats had become during the period following 9/11. (Disclosure: I was on the periphery of Kerry’s campaign as a researcher and writer.) Spooked by 2002, Kerry’s handlers built up his credentials as a military hero as the campaign against Bush unfolded. They heavily promoted a biography (Douglas Brinkley’s Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War) that presented the candidate to the general electorate almost entirely through his war and immediate postwar record.

At the Democratic National Convention in Boston, the messaging focused heavily on Kerry the decorated veteran. A revealing incident occurred when his friend the aforementioned Max Cleland gave the Kerry campaign a draft nominating speech in which he began with the words “Max Cleland, reporting for duty.” The campaign talked Cleland into letting the nominee use the line at the beginning of his acceptance speech. (Kerry was initially reluctant for the very good reason that a salute and “reporting for duty” were perquisites for current, not former, military members.) And thus, indelibly, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee was introduced to millions of Americans as a man of war.

Kerry’s campaign was incautiously setting him up for exactly what transpired in the dog days of August 2004: a spate of ads from a group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth maligning Kerry’s war record and attacking his antiwar protests as treasonous. Having placed too much weight on Kerry’s military heroism and failed to contextualize his protests against the same war in which he fought, the campaign compounded its errors by refusing to respond, reinforcing the impression that Democrats were afraid to talk about national security — a charge Republicans made explicit through a variety of anti-Kerry smears during their own convention.

Kerry did try to counterpunch by accusing Bush of botching efforts to capture or kill Osama bin Laden while focusing on a doomed occupation of Iraq, promoting a good war/bad war treatment of Afghanistan and Iraq that would become routine for Democrats until very recently. But in the end, Democratic divisions and equivocations on national security were too neatly symbolized by their nominee’s clumsy explanation of votes on amended and unamended war-funding measures: “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.” When attendees of the RNC danced and flourished flip-flops at every mention of Kerry’s name, the damage was multiplied, and if anyone missed that show, there was a Bush-Cheney ad using footage of the Democrat engaging in his favorite pastime of wind surfing:

The 2004 exit polls showed that 58 percent of voters trusted Bush to “handle terrorism,” but just 40 percent felt the same way about Kerry. In a close election decided by just over 100,000 votes in Ohio, that may have been the difference.

The “Fighting Dems”

As public opinion slowly turned against the Iraq War and Democrats began to unite in opposition to Bush’s open-ended engagement, Democrats still often felt defensive about their alleged reputation for weakness on national security. They continued to call for greater military aggressiveness in Afghanistan even as they called for a draw-down or even a withdrawal from Iraq.

In 2006, congressional Democrats made a big production out of attracting war veterans — some from Vietnam but others from the Gulf War or the more recent Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts — to challenge Republican incumbents or contest open seats. Fifty-nine such “Fighting Dems” won House primaries, while another 31 ran and lost or withdrew; two veterans won Senate primaries. While only six (five House candidates and one Senate candidate) ultimately prevailed, they were thought to have given the entire party a coat of insulation against claims that donkeys are peaceful animals with an insufficient willingness to bite and smite America’s enemies. Democrats did regain control of both Houses of Congress in 2006.

The symbol of Democratic anti–Iraq War pugilism in that era was 2006 Senate winner Jim Webb of Virginia. First in his class at Annapolis and then a Marine officer highly decorated for combat service in Vietnam, Webb had a distinguished academic and literary career before joining the Reagan administration, in which he eventually was appointed secretary of the Navy. After resigning from that post (reportedly in protest against plans to reduce the size of the Navy), Webb began an eccentric career in political kibbitzing for and against candidates from both parties, before his anger at George W. Bush’s Iraq policies made him a Democrat and then a Senate candidate against George Allen, whom Webb had endorsed six years earlier.

Webb’s 2006 victory made him an instant national celebrity, and he was tapped to give his new party’s response to Bush’s State of the Union Address in January of 2007. His well-received remarks were a sort of Fighting Dem apotheosis, quoting the famously militaristic presidents Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt on behalf of “populist” domestic policies and then attacking Bush for strategic ineptitude in Iraq:

The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military. We need a new direction. Not one step back from the war against international terrorism. Not a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos. But an immediate shift toward strong regionally-based diplomacy, a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq’s cities, and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq.

Webb, who had recently published a book entitled Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America and would soon pen A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America, was a perennial favorite of lefty “populists” during the latter stages of the post-9/11 decade. By the time he finally ran for president in the 2016 cycle, his bizarre defense of the display of Confederate symbols had reminded observers his service in the Reagan administration was no accident and that progressive militarism was and is problematic.

Obama’s Strategic Ambiguity

On the eve of the 2008 election, as George W. Bush’s presidency ground to an ignominious end amid disasters at home and abroad, his approval ratings as measured by Gallup had dropped from that 90 percent peak after 9/11 all the way to 25 percent . The GOP nominee to succeed him, John McCain, was a more credible warlord figure than W., however, and possessed in addition a “maverick” image that made him less of an inheritor of Bush’s and his party’s unpopularity.

Unlike most of his rivals for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination (e.g., Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, and John Edwards), Barack Obama, a freshman senator from Illinois, did not have to defend past support for the Iraq War. In fact, he spoke at an antiwar rally as an Illinois state senator the day the war authorization was introduced in Congress. But he kept a prudent distance from the progressive “netroots” activists who had cut their teeth on the Dean and Clark campaigns four years earlier and coupled his criticisms of McCain’s support for an Iraq War “surge” with his own calls for a refocus on victory in Afghanistan.

As his primary campaign settled into a close battle with Hillary Clinton (who was running ads suggesting Obama was too inexperienced to deal with a national security crisis), Obama balanced support from relatively dovish pols like Ted Kennedy and Gary Hart with endorsements from close-to-the-military Democrats like Sam Nunn and Lee Hamilton. He also let it be known that he was being advised by a 60-member group of former high-ranking military officers. And his choice of Joe Biden as a running mate added a veteran foreign-relations expert with solid Establishment credentials to the campaign and then his administration. He maintained a consistent pattern of strategic ambiguity when it came to competing wings of Democratic national security thinking. But he continued the good war/bad war tradition of post-9/11 Democrats criticizing one war but supporting another by launching his own troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009. And he attempted to finally end the Democratic Party’s fear of looking weak on terrorism with his dramatic announcement in May of 2011 that Osama bin Laden had been found and killed in Pakistan by U.S. special forces.

In his 2012 reelection campaign, Obama was on the offensive on national security issues, criticizing Mitt Romney for inexperience and inconsistency much as Republicans had criticized past Democratic nominees dating back to Michael Dukakis. “He was for and against the removal of Qaddafi, for and against setting a timetable to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan, for and against enforcing trade laws against China, and while he once said he would not move heaven and earth to get Osama bin Laden, he later claimed that any president would have authorized the mission to do so,” said Ben LaBolt, press secretary for the Obama campaign.

Did Trump Break the Mold?

Donald Trump’s harsh criticism of Bush’s “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the thorough trouncing he administered to traditional conservatives in the 2016 primaries and beyond, appeared initially to break the mold of post-9/11 national security politics. But Trump and his allies haven’t missed a beat in accusing Democrats of weakness and fecklessness in dealing with terrorists and other enemies, which they often conflate with immigrants and refugees. The 45th president mastered the crude demagogic appeal of threatening unimaginable and uninhibited violence against any foreign adversary big or small who crosses the United States or its truculent leader.

So once again Democrats found themselves under fire for “weakness” whenever they failed to match Trump’s wild bellicosity or willingness to throw money at the Pentagon. And now that Joe Biden has ended the war on Afghanistan that marked the beginning of America’s War on Terror, Republicans in and out of office are savaging him for his failures to reverse a long, losing battle against the Taliban or to save the compromised Afghan allies that many of these same Republicans do not wish to invite to resettle in the U.S.

Democrats focused on Biden’s perilous efforts to battle COVID-19 while enacting the most ambitious domestic-policy agenda since LBJ’s Great Society initiatives are betraying a familiar desire to change the subject or find some symbolic burst of violence their president can unleash to prove his mettle and salvage his party’s reputation. While the crisis in Kabul is no 9/11, it is having a similarly traumatic effect on a Democratic Party that still struggles to convince Americans that multilateral diplomacy, economic strength, and efforts to deal with the root causes of terrorism are not only adequate but irreplaceable in the task of keeping the country secure. That Democrats are willing to face existential threats like climate change and global inequality that most Republicans hardly acknowledge as real should make up for decades of smears. But it doesn’t. And so, for the foreseeable future, when the war drums are sounded, you can expect Democrats to dance to their beat or deny they hear them at all. It’s a 20-year habit that will be hard to break.

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