The Politics of a Dead Terrorist

Even given my normally sunny, upbeat, sincere disposition (*cough*) I’d love to be one of those people who looks at the demise of bin Laden as nothing more than a moment of national unity and happiness, properly examined in a vacuum where politics is concerned. Sadly, in the words of comic great Ron White, while I have the right to remain silent [on this] I lack the ability. The fact is that the death of bin Laden will have political implications and they can’t be ignored. Killing the AQ leader was one of the promises Obama 08 made on the campaign trail and his supporters are already being quick to trumpet it. So how much of an impact will it have?

I took a look over at Outside the Beltway, where Doug Mataconis had already weighed in on the subject.

The 1992 election is probably the best reason to be careful when making any predictions about how the death of bin Laden is likely to impact American politics. As [Nate] Silver notes, at this point in his Presidency George H.W. Bush seemed to be unbeatable thanks to the overwhelming success of the Persian Gulf War, but within a year that boost in the polls had largely disappeared thanks to a flagging economy, not to mention the fact that he had greatly annoyed his conservative base by going back on his “No New Taxes” pledge. This time around, the President is likely to get a boost in the polls but it’s not at all clear that it’s going to last, especially since we’ve already seen plenty of evidence that Obama’s approval numbers are subject to wide fluctuations.

So yes, barring a disaster in Libya or elsewhere, this likely takes national security off the table as an issue in 2012, but the election was never going to be about national security anyway. Much as George H.W. Bush found it hard to translate his post-Gulf War popularity into domestic success (something that his son was also largely unable to do in the wake of the September 11th attacks), it isn’t at all clear that killing Osama bin Laden is going to make any difference at all in the political battles to come over the budget, entitlements, the deficits, and the size and scope of government, In fact, there’s no reason to think that it would.

For contrast, Doug also points to Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin, and his analysis stating that this could be a turning point for Obama. (I’ll leave you to follow the link and read that one for yourself.)

Does Obama get a temporary bump in the polls out of this? I wouldn’t be shocked. This story is going to (rightly) consume the news cycle for a week or more. And while the process may have begun during the last administration, it was Obama who pulled the trigger and ordered the mission, which our SEALS pulled off to near perfection. For that, he deserves credit.

But as Mataconis points out, how long does this last? Was national security (aside from questions of remaining in Afghanistan and Libya) ever going to be the driving force in the 2012 election? People without jobs paying five bucks a gallon for gas may be very patriotic, but I’m sorry to say that they may have short memories for this sort of thing. I can’t escape the feeling that domestic issues of debt, energy, etc. will come slinking back in as the proper focus of campaign 2012.

The comparison to G.H.W. Bush was an apt one, I think. He handled the Gulf War in a way that drew the appreciation and admiration of the nation. But in the end, he raised taxes and opened a door for Bill Clinton’s team to say, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Obama would be foolish indeed to think he can ride this one success across the ocean to electoral victory. Far more work is waiting to be done at home.