Team Blog

Missing 9/11?

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta at a memorial service for 9/11 victims at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. EPA/Olivier Douliery

It is currently the 11th of September in America. As in 2001, it is a Tuesday. It coincidentally marks the start of a new round of a project related to terrorism response that I’m working on, and it occurred to me that I have not otherwise been hearing much political discourse about 9/11. I was sure that if I noticed this, a lot of other people would have too. But I did a quick check and, with the exception of a couple of pieces from the Associated Press by Julie Pace and Jennifer Peltz, and a Washington Post column by Dana Milbank, I found little remark about the anniversary of a day that I not long ago heard that no one would ever forget.

The raw shock and grief of that otherwise beautiful autumn day have truthfully been receding steadily and probably normally ever since the attacks occurred. I was working in the U.S. Senate Majority Leader’s office at the time and had to evacuate the Capitol. For the next week or so, nearly every driver on the commute in to Capitol Hill was exceedingly polite and deferential, making eye contact and nodding before they waved you on to turn in front of them. You could tell that they were all expecting to be called before St. Peter at any moment. But it ended after a few days.

For the next five years, public institutions held public moments of silence on the anniversary, memorial services attracted celebrities, and American Airlines was considerate enough to change the flight number on its morning Dulles-LAX trip to something very different from the one that hit the Pentagon. Last year, when I was teaching at Colorado State, the university held a candle light vigil and I realized that this was the last year in which I could trust that all of my students would have their own living memory of the day. Today I see that the university has no events on its public calendar.

This receding into history has followed a healthy trajectory, but it is one that you would not have anticipated from observing Federal elections in the U.S. during the same time period. The 2002 congressional elections were the only midterm contest in modern history, aside from the immediately post-Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 elections and the looming Clinton impeachment 1998 elections, in which a president’s party had actually won seats. The principal reason was then historically popular President Bush, who urged voters to send his preferred candidates to help him enact national security measures.

In perhaps the most prominent example, incumbent Democrat Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, a triple amputee Vietnam veteran, was defeated by Republican Saxby Chambliss, who had avoided Vietnam on deferments but who successfully ran ads accusing Cleland of being weak on national security and insufficiently supportive of President Bush.

Two years later, Senator John Kerry, who was certainly not the most dynamic candidate in the race, handily won the Democratic nomination because he was the only established candidate with a war record, which party activist primary voters hoped would neutralize the national security issue in the general election. But Kerry was also successfully painted as weak and met the same fate as Cleland. The large billboard in downtown Philadelphia said it all: “Bush-Cheney: Defending America.”

The trend continued throughout the decade, with Democrats recruiting formerly atypical congressional candidates like Regan Administration Navy Secretary Jim Webb, Iraq helicopter pilot and amputee veteran Tammy Miller, and Admiral Joe Sestak, and Republicans overcoming their discomfort with the sometimes heterodox Vietnam veteran Senator John McCain to nominate the presidential candidate seen as most electable in the difficult environment of post-Bush 2008).

This year, the ghost of 9/11 seems to have truly departed from the election scene, with the exception of Democrats repeatedly reminding voters that Osama Bin Laden is now dead, and the minor flap over Governor Romney not mentioning Afghanistan in his speech or thanking the armed forces for their service. While Vice President Biden previously chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and President Obama served on it as well during his brief tenure in Congress, neither member of the Romney-Ryan ticket has foreign policy credentials. For the first time since at least the 1920s, none of the four major party nominees even served in the military. And apparently it doesn’t matter.

According to Pace, both campaigns are suspending television ads running negative messages about their opponents just for the day. It seems unlikely that the type of persuadable undecided voter who is meant to be swayed by the ads would even notice this brief respite. And then it will be back to business as usual, which now appears to be a different type of cultural war than a 9/11 clash of civilizations. The Romney team appears to be attempting to cast Obama as The Other by resurrecting insinuations that he is not truly American or Christian, such as implying that he wants to take “In God We Trust” off coins. The Obama team – I suspect – is also playing “dog whistle politics” by mocking Romney for being old-fashioned and out of touch, such as the president’s assertion that Romney’s acceptance speech should have been broadcast in black and white. Rather than portraying Romney as a plutocrat out of touch with the needs of the twenty first century American workforce, I cannot help but think that the goal is to subtly remind voters of Romney’s own otherness as a Mormon by portraying him as stereotypically “square.”

In any event, neither side evidently sees any value in openly denying their opponents’ patriotism or capacity to serve as commander in chief, which is a nice change from the decade following September 11. American elections may at last be catching up with the American electorate.