Political impact of 9/11 fades

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At a town hall meeting in Catonsville last week, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin spent a half-hour answering questions, including whether Congress would cut Medicare, address immigration or impeach President Barack Obama.

Despite the breadth of the discussion, the Maryland Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not hear a single question about Iraq or Afghanistan, the broader goal of curtailing terrorism or efforts to bolster security in the United States.

Ten years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, stripped the nation of its sense of invulnerability and realigned politics in a way not seen since the height of the Cold War, their impact on voters, candidates and elections has waned.

As Americans look ahead to the 2012 presidential vote, the focus is once again on the economy, as in the previous two national elections in 2010 and 2008.

"In a way there's a kind of Sept. 11 hangover," said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, which released a report recently that summarized a decade's worth of public opinion polls on terrorism. "It's on the back burner at a very steady simmer, but it's still on the back burner."

A month after the attacks, 46 percent of Americans viewed terrorism as the nation's foremost problem, according to a Gallup poll. Five years later, the figure had slipped to 11 percent. Last year, only 1 percent saw terrorism as the top problem — about the same as before the Sept. 11 attacks.

But the attacks, which will be revisited in anniversary events across the country in the coming days, had a lasting impact on the federal government, including the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, new policies that eased restrictions on domestic surveillance and the doubling of defense spending over the past decade.

No event since the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, has had such an effect on the nation's psyche, says American University historian Allan Lichtman.

"Pearl Harbor was really important because it broke the myth of American isolationism," said Lichtman, an unsuccessful Maryland Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in 2006. Sept. 11 "was another paradigm shift: It broke the myth of American invulnerability."

But while the attacks orchestrated by al-Qaida played a significant role in the 2002 and 2004 elections, and continued to have an impact in 2008, their political potency has slid — in part, some say, because of public perceptions about the government's response to Sept. 11.

Despite growing distrust of Washington, nearly eight in 10 people give the government high marks for preventing terrorism, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Thursday.

"It's human nature that when you have a crisis you pay attention to it for a period of time and you try to prevent it from happening again," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the Southern Maryland lawmaker who is the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the House. "Eventually, the immediacy of the danger fades."

The Republicans now crisscrossing the country in pursuit of the presidential nomination have in some cases gone out of their way to avoid discussing the threat of terrorism.

And while the patriotic bipartisanship that immediately followed the 2001 attacks led to drastic changes for the federal government, even some of those shifts in policy are starting to come undone.

Part of what drove politics after the attacks was an increased level of public confidence in government — a predictable response in the aftermath of a crisis, said Kimberly Gross, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University who has studied public trust.

"It's not obvious who will deal with it or who will protect people, so there's this huge leap in trust," Gross said. "It didn't last hugely long."

Politically, the attacks nudged members of both parties closer together as the Cold War-era stereotype about Democrats being soft on defense became a far more effective tool for Republicans to use in the face of a broad "war on terrorism."

A year after the Sept. 11 attacks, 29 of 50 Senate Democrats joined all but one Republican in supporting the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

In his 2004 re-election effort, President George W. Bush repeatedly tried to paint his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, as weak on defense. One television ad aired by the Bush campaign weeks before the election showed a pack of wolves lurking in a forest as the narrator chastised Kerry for voting "to slash America's intelligence operations."

"Weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm," the narrator said.

Four years later, candidate Barack Obama's ability to confront terrorism was also called into question on the campaign trail. Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton raised doubts about whether Obama was prepared to handle a hypothetical "3 a.m. call," a middle-of-the-night national security crisis.

The Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, recycled that concern in the general election.

Sarah Palin, then McCain's running mate, accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists," in reference to his ties to the 1960s radical William Ayers.

For a time, the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent political rhetoric forced Democrats to adopt more hawkish positions, Cardin and others said.

"As far as the overall national security posture, there has been virtually no difference between the parties," said Cardin, who opposed the Iraq war resolution as a member of the House in 2002. "It's hard to see a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans."

Cardin, who was elected to the Senate in 2006, is up for re-election next year.

Now, many of the political and policy changes that followed the Sept. 11 attacks are being reversed. The budget agreement struck last month to resolve the crisis over the nation's debt ceiling, for instance, included $420 billion in cuts to defense spending over the next decade. Those cuts were endorsed by House Republicans, who had long held defense spending sacrosanct.

If Congress cannot agree on a long-term plan to reduce the debt by November, another $500 billion in defense cuts would occur automatically.

As Obama winds down the war in Iraq and redefines the nation's role in Afghanistan, the U.S. involvement in the NATO intervention in Libya has divided Republican lawmakers and the GOP presidential field — a break from the broadly hawkish stance that has long characterized the party.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney supported the Libya mission, with criticism of how Obama has handled it. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann have opposed it. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has tended to tread lightly on the subject.

Sept. 11 had more subtle political implications beyond defense and security, experts say. Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, believes the attacks reduced voters' willingness to support female candidates to the lowest point in decades.

Donald F. Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, speculated that the attacks and subsequent attempt to tackle terrorism have led to more infighting within the political parties.

Sept. 11 "escalated the rhetoric but merged policy positions, since everyone was opposed to terrorists — but we have had an increasingly hard time figuring out what to do about them," Kettl said. "It's shadow boxing on steroids."

He noted that the cost of the wars is a major contributor to federal budget deficits, which gave rise to the tea party movement.

"It's not a straight line" that links the conservative movement to Sept. 11, "but there's unquestionably a connection."

Despite the rhetorical bickering, the public has largely given both Obama and President George W. Bush high marks on fighting terrorism, even when voters disagreed with them on other issues.

Last month, six in 10 respondents to an Associated Press poll said the phrase "he will keep America safe" described Obama "very or somewhat well."

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, credited the Bush administration with helping to retool the nation's military for the modern threat of terrorism. But the Baltimore County lawmaker also suggested that some of the defense cuts proposed by the Obama White House and others are long overdue.

"We were used to battling nations, and we had to change our way of operating," Ruppersberger said.

"It seems we've lost sight that we still have men and women in Afghanistan and in Iraq," he said. "We can't allow al-Qaida to use Afghanistan. On the other hand, we can't be the sheriffs for the whole world."

Sense of Sept. 11

Opinion polls show how public attitudes about Sept. 11 have changed over the past decade.

How people rate the U.S. government's effort at reducing the threat of terrorism:

Date: Very or fairly well//Not well

Aug. 2011:76//22

Oct. 2010:69//27

Jan. 2010:65//33

Oct. 2009:73//22

April 2009:75//20

Feb. 2009:71//22

Feb. 2008:66//31

Jan. 2007:54//44

Dec. 2006:65//32

Aug. 2006:74//24

Feb. 2006:68//30

Jan. 2006:66//29

Oct. 2005:67//31

July 2005:60//27

July 2004:71//25

Aug. 2003:75//23

Nov. 2002:69//27

June 2002:76//20

Nov. 2001:81//14

Oct. 2001:84//13

Oct. 2001:88//8

Source: Pew Research Center

Percentage of people who think it "very likely" that there will be another terrorist attack in the United States within the next few months.

Sept. 2001:36

Oct. 2001:46

Dec. 2001:23

Jan. 2002:18

Feb. 2002:18

April 2002:21

May 2002:25

July 2002:27

Sept. 2002:23

Oct. 2002:27

Nov. 2002:27

Jan. 2003:14

Feb. 2003:35

July 2004:24

Sept. 2004:18

Jan. 2006:10

Aug. 2006:16

July 2007:17

Sept. 2007:9

Dec. 2007:11

Jan. 2009:5

Jan. 2010:26

Feb. 2010:18

May 2011:21

Source: New York Times/CBS News poll