WHEN ASKED about the effect of another terrorist attack on American soil, John McCain's chief strategist, Charlie Black, responded rashly and bluntly. "Certainly it would be a big advantage" for McCain, Black told Fortune magazine recently. Similarly, the strategist described the assassination of Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto in December as "an unfortunate event," but said "it helped us" in the contest for the nomination.
It would be unfair to McCain, and to Black, to take this analysis as an indication that the Republican team is hoping for or counting on a terrorist incident. Still, Black's observation does bring up the question of whether the threat of terrorism will help Republicans, or whether the politics of security have shifted since the last presidential election.
Is Black right to assume that McCain would benefit politically after another terrorist atrocity in the United States? The subject came up when the Fortune interviewer first asked McCain "what single economic threat he perceives above all others" and McCain, after a long silence, said: "Well, I would think that the absolute gravest threat is the struggle that we're in against radical Islamist extremism."
Perhaps McCain is merely determined to stay on message, so much so that he answers an economics question from a business magazine with a non sequitur that is supposed to play to his ostensible strength, national security. Or perhaps McCain would rather not talk about foreclosures, the credit crisis, disappearing jobs, healthcare, and tax policy - economic issues in which Republican dogma and public sentiment diverge significantly.
Regardless, McCain is ignoring the ever more evident flaws in President Bush's notion of a war against an enemy called terrorism. If McCain is only proposing more of the same, he needs to explain why Al Qaeda and its allies appear stronger and more sophisticated than ever. If Defense Secretary Robert Gates is right to say, "It is just plain embarrassing that Al Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America," why is this so? Why are Al Qaeda and the Taliban able to threaten Afghanistan again, as they are now doing?
Bush's war on terrorism may have offered an excuse to flout the US Constitution and expand executive power, but it has not been going all that well. McCain should recognize that the next president needs to enhance national security by improving perceptions of the United States in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, his comments, and Black's, suggest that Republicans have learned nothing from Bush's mistakes.