by Scott Winship
Lately hawkish Democrats have been disparaged for wanting to prioritize terrorism over other problems. Some object to privileging terrorism on substantive grounds. Other objections are strategic. I’d like to address both here with some data. But before I do, I’ll ask that we set aside the debate over Iraq for the purposes of this discussion. Terrorism was only tenuously related to Iraq before we invaded, in the sense that hostile regimes such as Saddam’s could potentially cooperate with jihadists to inflict damage on the U.S. One can oppose the Iraq War, favor redeployment, and still believe that terrorism ought to be the primary concern of the federal government.
First a brief substantive defense (since I’m supposed to be focusing on strategy). Lots of observers, bloggers, and pundits debate to no end how serious the terrorist threat is. But Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for American Progress just released findings from a poll of 116 experts. (Hat tip to Kevin Drum, who hat-tips Eric Martin.) One in three believes it is “likely” or “certain” that a 9/11-sized terrorist attack will occur in the United States by the end of this year. A majority of 57 percent believes we will experience a Madrid-sized attack by the end of the year. Four in five believe that by the end of 2011 another attack as devastating as 9/11 will occur.
While it is true that in terms of sheer capacity for destruction, the jihadist threat does not approach that of the Soviet Union during the decades of the Cold War, there is an important difference between the two cases. Mutually assured destruction can serve as a deterrent within the framework of nations acting as rational actors. But it will not deter stateless men who are committed to martyrdom. The same argument may be made when comparing terrorism to other foreign policy threats such as China.
Terrorism is also unique today in that it has the potential for violently disrupting the lives of civilians on American soil. I tend to agree with Newt Gingrich, who fears that another 9/11 would make the Patriot Act look like it was written by the ACLU. Don’t like federal snooping, sanctioned torture, extraordinary rendition, or enemy combatant treatment? Better hope that we manage to stop that single person it would take to detonate a dirty bomb in Washington D.C. and render it uninhabitable for several hundred years.
As for the strategic defense, many have pointed to recent public opinion polls showing that terrorism has declined in importance in the minds of voters. In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, terrorism ranked last behind Iraq, the economy, health care, immigration, and gas prices as a national priority. The last CBS News poll that asked this question was in May and was open-ended. Iraq, the economy, and immigration clearly were deemed more important than terrorism. Polls from NBC News/Wall Street Journal and Fox News come to similar conclusions.
On the other hand, a recent CNN poll asked respondents to rate the importance of a number of different issues rather than having them choose one as the most important. In this case, more people deemed terrorism very important than said the same of Iraq, the economy, gas prices, corruption, immigration, or spying. The Pew Research Center has asked adults a similar question for a number of years. Terrorism has ranked first every year since 2002.
Taken together, this evidence indicates that while terrorism may not consistently be the single most important issue for voters, it is consistently very important. Crucially, a Gallup poll from last month indicates that voters trust Democrats more than Republicans on all of the issues noted above…except for terrorism, where the advantage for Republicans is as large as the advantage for Democrats on Iraq [subscr. only].
In other words, Democrats have an advantage on most of the issues that are important to voters, except on terrorism, which is clearly a threshold issue for them. More to the point, terrorism was clearly the issue that drove the 2004 election, despite the infamously poorly-worded exit poll question that indicated moral values to be the main factor. In the National Election Study, when asked open-endedly about the single most important issue from the past four years, 43 percent of adults chose terrorism, followed by 19 percent who chose Iraq, and 12 percent who chose the economy.
When a number of issues are all important but the Republican advantage on one is relatively large, that single issue may dominate the others even if it’s not the most common issue mentioned when voters are asked for their most important issue. Joe Swingvoter may go to the polls thinking that education is his most important issue but feeling that the candidates are equally good (or bad) on it. But Joe may think that the Republican candidate is clearly better on terrorism, which is also important to him, and so he ends up voting for the GOP.
Uniting the substantive and strategic case for addressing terrorism more prominently, if we do have the misfortune of experiencing another terrorist attack, terrorism will surely reside unambiguously at the top of the agenda. And if a Republican is elected, he or she may not botch things the way our current commander-in-chief has. That could put us in the political wilderness for a generation.
by Scott Winship