Last week I spoke to a group of college students who are studying in Washington this summer and they asked if the 2006 elections would be pretty much centered on domestic issues. I understood the question but thought it ironic since many of them had just been evacuated from the U.S. Capitol in another false alarm over a plane that strayed into restricted airspace. On July 4, following the concert and fireworks on the Mall, the D.C. police held a test of the emergency evacuation plan that would be followed after another terrorist attack.
Then I remembered a lot of talk following 9/11 that terrorism had become a domestic issue. Homeland security clearly has a lot of links to issues of law and order and use of public funds. But the amazing thing is how evacuations, diverted planes, bothersome airport screenings and raising the terror alert levels have become commonplace. In the most recentonly 6 percent named terrorism as the top issue, far below the war in Iraq and the economy, both of which were mentioned by 19 percent of Americans. In late 2001 and 2002, the number citing terrorism was in double digits.
And then London happened and the horror of terrorism was back in a flash. For the last few years everyone has been holding their breath at big events – the pope's funeral, Times Square on New Year's Eve, the Super Bowl, the Oscars. On Wednesday, during the joyous scene in Trafalgar Square when London was awarded the 2112 Olympics, the thought of bombings inevitably crossed the mind.
It is a truism of public opinion that defense and international affairs never matter to Americans – until something happens. And then they zoom to the fore. They are "threshold" issues that, even in peacetime, candidates have always had to demonstrate competency in, if they are to be taken seriously as presidential contenders.
In the last election, Democrats thought John Kerry would pass that test with flying colors, but for some reason Kerry kept harkening back to his service in Vietnam rather than his mastery of current international issues and ways of keeping Americans safe. George W. Bush emerged as a leader after 9/11, and as recently as last month his handling of the war on terror was still his strong suit, with 52 percent of Americans approving of his performance.
However, in January '05, the last time the CBS poll asked whether the U.S. is winning the war on terrorism, only 39 per cent said yes. The London bombings may start some questioning about the Bush approach after the rally effect wanes. The linkage to Iraq is already being made.
As candidates start to position themselves for 2008, they will be tested once again. A Democratic strategist told me a few months ago that because of his liberal views on social issues there was "no way that Rudy Giuliani could win the Republican nomination, unless, of course, there was another terrorist attack." If that happened, the Democrat said, "there is no way he can lose."
Experts on terrorism have been warning for the past few years that it is a not a matter of "if" but "when" the next terrorist attack will come. Thursday's tragedy in London proved them right. It has reminded Americans that it can happen here again.