Of Paris and (Would-Be) Presidents

With terrorism on everyone’s minds, the heart of the American voter remains a mystery.

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Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Nov. 20, 2015, 5 a.m.

Last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris amounted to a 9/11 event for the French and, for Americans, a vivid memory of that horrific day 14 years ago. It also reminds us that we could very well have another—experts say it’s almost inevitable. So, what effect will the tragedy in Paris have on the U.S. presidential campaign and next year’s election? The short answer: Ask me again in 50 weeks.

But let’s parse the possibilities. While Donald Trump’s bluntness—“I would bomb the shit out of them”—elicited some huzzahs, it seems likely that the massacres in Paris will inject a degree of seriousness into the campaign that hasn’t been evident during the past five months.

But how serious, and how long might it last? Which candidates, and which party, might this help or hurt? These are tougher calls. They’re almost like a Rorschach test: What you see depends on who you are and what you already believe.

Think about Hillary Clinton. Some would conclude that she’ll be helped politically because of her credential as a former secretary of State. Unless, that is, she is seen as an architect of a policy that has demonstrably not worked.

Watching almost 10 hours of focus groups in recent weeks has driven home the fact that people hold complicated views of Clinton. Conservatives and Republicans pretty much hate her, but they’d never vote for her or for any Democrat, so their loathing doesn’t matter much. Most independents and moderates see her as smart, knowledgeable, and competent, but they—and even occasional Democrats and liberals—don’t much like or trust her. Swing voters, in particular, have very mixed emotions.

Interestingly, while Clinton’s critics tend to focus on emails and Benghazi, left largely unexamined is her record as secretary of State. She crisscrossed the globe, giving hundreds of speeches, especially on human and women’s rights, and ably representing the United States with world leaders and at international meetings. Yet it’s hard to point to many concrete accomplishments. Carly Fiorina has zinged Clinton by noting that “travel is an activity, not an accomplishment.” That said, Clinton has spent hundreds of hours in the White House Situation Room and in meetings on secret intelligence, surely learning more of value than any of her rivals. Reality—especially, political reality—can be messy.

Or, consider what a resurgence of terrorism as an issue might do to Bernie Sanders. Possibly, it will hurt his candidacy, which has centered on the inequality in Americans’ income and wealth. At a 7,000-person rally at Cleveland State University, it apparently was a buzz kill when he opened with talk about terrorism. Yet other voters might conclude that Sanders, who touts his opposition to the war in Iraq, would exercise military restraint rather than an attack-now-and-ask-questions-later approach. They see him as the antithesis of George W. Bush after 9/11.

On the Republican side, candidates were quick to out-tough one another in denouncing President Obama’s policy toward the Islamic State. But the political implications for each of the candidates seem equally unpredictable.

Marco Rubio? You can make a case that, in his five short years in the Senate, he has used his post on the Foreign Relations Committee and its counterterrorism subcommittee to create a specialty of international relations and national security. At least to my untrained ear, Rubio sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, and he has had more exposure to these issues than most of his rivals. On the other hand, Rubio is 44 years old but doesn’t look a day over 28. An intangible factor.

Five months older than Rubio—but looking older than that—is his Senate colleague Ted Cruz. Few in the Republican field, other than Trump and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, project the toughness and steadfastness that Cruz does. (Christie’s toughness is more credible than Trump’s.) You can question Cruz’s judgment but not his intelligence or his audacity.

The list of equivocations goes on. Jeb Bush, notwithstanding his other challenges, projects maturity. So does John Kasich, who spent 18 years on the House Armed Services Committee. Certainly, others in the field have credentials that they can point to as well. For an outsider who has never held public office, Fiorina has clearly mastered defense policy, in stark contrast to Trump and Ben Carson, who obviously have never tried. But will voters care? Conversely, will they continue to forgive Carson’s floundering on questions about geopolitics?

The point of this is not to be equivocal but to acknowledge that so much is unknowable. A focus on terrorism and national security as the campaign unfolds clearly has implications—but what are they? Consider this: For the past several years, three of the top concerns that conservatives and Republicans have expressed to pollsters are terrorism, national security, and America’s place in the world, while liberals and Democrats have usually named the economy, jobs, income and wealth inequality, schools, and health care.

Political independents have stood somewhere in between. Prior to the Paris attacks, they sounded more like Democrats than Republicans in their priorities. That could change.

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