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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