Sept. 11 Attacks Alter U.S. Political Landscape

Only a few events in a lifetime serve as true turning points. There was the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, the day JFK was shot and the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. How have the events of Sept. 11 resonated through 10 years of American politics?

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DAVID GREENE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. Renee Montagne is on assignment in Afghanistan. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

If there was ever a day to set aside politics, it might have been yesterday, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

GREENE: At a memorial service in New York yesterday morning, President Obama read aloud from the Bible. Former President Bush joined him to read a letter by Abraham Lincoln.

INSKEEP: But, of course, it would be hard to understand the decade since 9/11, or the events to come, without discussing politics. And that's we'll do in this part of the program.

NPR's Don Gonyea has covered politics all through the past decade since 9/11.

DON GONYEA: On 9/11, the nation came together, including the U.S. Congress, whose members stood together that day and sang.

(Soundbite of song, "God Bless America)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) God bless America, my home sweet...

GONYEA: In the months and years just prior to 9/11 in America, domestic issues dominated: education, taxes, health care. In an instant, that changed.

Democratic pollster Mark Penn.

Mr. MARK PENN (Democratic Pollster): It was a massive change in psychology from a peacetime electorate, thinking about progress and prosperity, to a national security electorate. And that, of course, would favor the Republicans.

GONYEA: That's because polling had long given the GOP an edge over Democrats on national security. The congressional unity we saw, it held together in support for military action in Afghanistan. But soon after that came partisan battles over national security. And by the 2002 midterm elections, 9/11 was being used as a political weapon by President Bush and other Republicans.

(Soundbite of a political advertisement)

Unidentified Man: America faces terrorists and extremist dictators. Max Cleland runs television ads claiming he has the courage the lead. He says he supports President Bush at every opportunity, but that's not the truth.

GONYEA: This ad, attacking Democratic U.S. Senator Max Cleland, brought cries of foul from Democrats because of its use of Osama bin Laden's image. Cleland, a disabled Vietnam War veteran, lost his bid for re-election, and the GOP captured the U.S. Senate and increased its majority in the House. Then came 2004.

Peter Feaver of Duke University is a former advisor to President Bush during the Iraq War.

Mr. PETER FEAVER (Duke University): Well, by that point, the painful memory of the 2002 election - painful for the Democrats - locked in the idea that Democrats had to show that they were strong on national security to compete.

GONYEA: The '04 nominee was a three-time winner of the Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GONYEA: The increasingly difficult Iraq War dominated the '04 campaign. Democrats tried to capitalize, but kept coming up against 9/11, including this ad about a Bush campaign rally where the president was introduced to a young girl named Ashley, whose mother died at the World Trade Center.

(Soundbite of a political advertisement)

ASHLEY: He's the most powerful man in the world, and all he wants to do is make sure that I'm safe, that I'm okay.

GONYEA: President Bush won, but this is where the story of 9/11's impact on politics turns. Discontent over the Iraq War drove his public approval numbers to record lows. In the '06 midterm, Republicans still talked tough on terrorism, but this time the issue worked against them. Democrats captured control of Congress. President Bush called it quote, "a thumping."

Then, two years later, came this candidate and this kind of rhetoric.

(Soundbite of speech)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): We can use fear as a tactic, the threat of terrorism to scare up votes. Or we can decide that real strength is asking the tough questions before we send our troops in to fight.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GONYEA: When the mortgage crisis hit in the fall '08, the economy again became the big issue. It remains so today. The killing of Osama bin Laden didn't change that. And these days, with deficits such big part of the debate, even many Republicans are talking about ways to cut defense spending and to end the wars.

But Duke's Peter Feaver cautions.

Mr. FEAVER: Even if the public's not interested in national security, national security can be interested in the public.

GONYEA: And new national security crises can quickly change the nation's priorities.

Mark Penn says 10 years after 9/11, Americans do feel safer. But...

Mr. PENN: Quite separate from the national security concerns is the economic anxiety, the overwhelming concern that America got off track in this decade. How do we get it back on track?

GONYEA: He points to another significant trend in polling: A decade of steadily growing pessimism. It's yet another way that the political impact of 9/11 will continue to be felt.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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