Jacob's Jottings: Blackballed

There have long been whispers that a terrorist attack would help John McCain’s presidential chances—and they’re now being repeated in the press. Yet the truth is that were one to occur, things could go either way.

John McCain's top advisor Charlie Black is getting pounded for telling Fortune magazine that a terrorist attack on the United States would be a "big advantage" for the GOP in 2008. Sen. Barack Obama's campaign immediately went into the high dudgeon that seems to be de rigueur during this campaign season, declaring that the statement is a "complete disgrace" and is "exactly the kind of politics that needs to change." Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, sensing a public-relations disaster, distanced, as the saying goes, himself from the inopportune remark: "I cannot imagine why he would say it. It's not true. I've worked tirelessly since 9/11 to prevent another attack on the United States of America."

But forget the toing and froing for a moment. Black's speculation, however morbid, raises two interesting questions. First, would it be a considerable plus for the McCain campaign were terrorists to execute a big strike-or would it, in fact, redound to the benefit of the Obama campaign? Second, and perhaps more significant, is McCain relying too heavily on his foreign-policy credentials?

In the June 25 New York Times, Michael Cooper broached this question, trying to show how both sides hope to ride the issue of terrorism to their benefit, McCain by showing that he's a Gary Cooper figure out of High Noon, ready to stroll anywhere into the Middle East and take out the terrorists, while Obama wants to highlight the recklessness of McCain and Co. for miring the United States in Iraq and failing to polish off Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. Fair enough. But this doesn't really get to the heart of the matter, which is what the consequences of an attack on American soil might pose for the Democrats and Republicans. In today's Washington Post, Jonathan Weisman and Anne Kornblut address it directly: "Was Black speaking the truth?"

The Obama-as-wussbag camp points to his professed readiness to talk to authoritarian regimes as a slippery slope toward a new Munich. Decades of Democratic pusillanimity, Obama's Republican critics suggest, mean that his presidency would be nothing more than a rerun of the Jimmy Carter presidency. McCain, by contrast, would be a seasoned military veteran, stomping out evil abroad, as Reagan did during the 1980s.

The Obama-as-savior camp argues the opposite. Even as Bush was gearing up for war in Iraq, Obama, a mere state legislator at the time, was presciently denouncing the dangers of a protracted and costly occupation. Only by restoring America's reputation abroad, Obama supporters continue, can terrorism be halted. An attack on American soil, moreover, would prove that the Bush administration's policies were, in reality, a failure. Given that the administration launched two wars and greatly encroached upon domestic civil liberties to broaden spying capabilities, so the argument would go, an attack should not have occurred.

So far, polls suggest that McCain does indeed command more credibility on the terror front. An attack might strengthen his case to be president. But it also might not. The extravagant claims of a war on terror made by the Bush administration since 9/11 may have jaded a public that is clearly weary of an endless war in Iraq. Scaring the American public worked in the 2002 midterm elections and, to a lesser extent, in 2004. In 2006 it flopped. In 2008 it may even be counterproductive.

The truth is that Obama's message on foreign policy is actually more Reaganesque than McCain's because it promises a hopeful future as opposed to perpetual warfare against shadowy enemies. Add to that the fact that, as the New Yorker and the New Republic have recently reported, the intellectual basis for jihad is getting a second look among some fundamentalists and the situation gets even murkier. The bottom line is that focusing almost exclusively on foreign policy is an awfully shaky basis for McCain to run for the presidency.

Indeed, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll that appeared today indicates that Obama currently holds a twelve-point lead over McCain. It identifies a "passion gap" among conservatives, who just can't get that enthused about the former Vietnam War hero. Obama has taken the lead, at least in part, because voters think he's better equipped to handle the domestic problems facing the country.

Yet it's on issues such as taxes where Obama is potentially most vulnerable. McCain himself is floating the notion of further tax cuts, which would further exacerbate the deficit. But Obama's plans for dramatically raising income as well as Social Security taxes fly in the face of common sense. So do the extra billions he wants to spend on so-called job creation. The fact is that to let the Bush tax cuts lapse in toto as well as raise taxes could well be a recipe for disaster during a recession. The last thing the economy needs is to be dragged down further, which is why the Federal Reserve is keeping interest rates at historically low rates, even though the dollar is tanking.

So McCain should reassess. If there is a terrorist attack, he could benefit from the increased focus on foreign policy, though it isn't a certainty that he would. But if there isn't-and obviously everyone should hope one doesn't occur-McCain might want to recognize that his opponent's true vulnerability may not be rooted in foreign affairs. It's most likely in domestic ones.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.