The off-hand analysis of Charlie Black on the political effect of a terrorist attack continues to reverberate, but the Washington Post wonders if Black wasn’t right. The Obama campaign certainly acts as though he was, with their high-profile efforts to counter Black’s remarks in Fortune, which seem almost — almost — innocuous in context. Just a hint of bin Laden in 2004 cost John Kerry the election … according to John Kerry:
Sen. Barack Obama and his surrogates continued to criticize Charles R. Black Jr., a top adviser to Sen. John McCain, on Tuesday for saying a terrorist attack before the November election would help the presumptive Republican nominee. But behind their protests lay a question that has dogged Democrats since Sept. 11, 2001: Was Black speaking the truth? …
To this day, Kerry (D-Mass.) has blamed an Osama bin Laden videotape released on Oct. 29, 2004, for his defeat in the election the following week. And McCain, while campaigning in Connecticut for Rep. Christopher Shays that week in 2004, described the bin Laden video as a boost for Bush. “I think it’s very helpful to President Bush,” McCain said at the time. “It focuses America’s attention on the war on terrorism. I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but I think it does have an effect.”
If Kerry has the same analysis as Black, and apparently offers it publicly, then what’s the big deal? Let’s take a look at Black’s comments in their full context, courtesy of Dafydd at Big Lizards (emphases his):
Not America’s dependence on foreign oil? Not climate change? Not the crushing cost of health care? Eventually McCain gets around to mentioning all three of those. But he starts by deftly turning the economy into a national security issue – and why not? On national security McCain wins. We saw how that might play out early in the campaign, when one good scare, one timely reminder of the chaos lurking in the world, probably saved McCain in New Hampshire, a state he had to win to save his candidacy – this according to McCain’s chief strategist, Charlie Black. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December was an “unfortunate event,” says Black. “But his knowledge and ability to talk about it reemphasized that this is the guy who’s ready to be Commander-in-Chief. And it helped us.” As would, Black concedes with startling candor after we raise the issue, another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. “Certainly it would be a big advantage to him,” says Black.
McCain wasn’t the only candidate with a comeback in New Hampshire. Hillary won the state in a surprise, too, and while the pundits ascribed that to her emotional outburst, it could just as easily have been the Bhutto assassination. Hillary had built her campaign on a ready-to-lead theme, and that momentary intrusion of international reality could have briefly focused Democratic voters on terrorism rather than the economy.
Is it somewhat impolitic to express Black’s analysis? Perhaps, but it shouldn’t be. The Obama campaign has said over and over again that they want a robust debate on national security, but their response to Black and their rejection of town-hall debates says otherwise. The truth is that Obama’s appeasement-minded initiatives towards America’s enemies have made him look soft on terrorism, and the Obama team wants to keep the debate focused on the economy as much as possible, where Obama’s populism can prevail over McCain’s market approaches. Any reminder that the world is a dangerous place makes it difficult for Obama.
It’s clear from the context that Black wasn’t running around the media with the trope of “we’re hoping for a terrorist attack” for sale. Fortune asked him a blunt question, and he gave an honest answer — and one so unremarkable that Fortune didn’t bother to ask a follow-up. If that’s good enough for John Kerry to use as a rationalization for four years, why does Black’s offhand comment cause such consternation?