Of Paris and (Would-Be) Presidents

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

AP Photo
Charlie Cook
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
Cohn Rules Out Easing Russian Sanctions
9 hours ago
Lieberman Withdraws from Consideration for FBI Job
1 days ago
Trump Tells NATO Countries To Pay Up
1 days ago
Russians Discussed Influencing Trump Through Aides
1 days ago

"American spies collected information last summer revealing that senior Russian intelligence and political officials were discussing how to exert influence over Donald J. Trump through his advisers." The conversations centered around Paul Manafort, who was campaign chairman at the time, and Michael Flynn, former national security adviser and then a close campaign surrogate. Both men have been tied heavily with Russia and Flynn is currently at the center of the FBI investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Ethics Cops Clear Mueller to Work on Trump Case
3 days ago

"Former FBI Director Robert Mueller has been cleared by U.S. Department of Justice ethics experts to oversee an investigation into possible collusion between then-candidate Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign and Russia." Some had speculated that the White House would use "an ethics rule limiting government attorneys from investigating people their former law firm represented" to trip up Mueller's appointment. Jared Kushner is a client of Mueller's firm, WilmerHale. "Although Mueller has now been cleared by the Justice Department, the White House may still use his former law firm's connection to Manafort and Kushner to undermine the findings of his investigation, according to two sources close to the White House."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.