On August 11, John Kerry criticized the Bush Administration for blocking a bipartisan plan to give seniors access to lower-priced prescription drugs from Canada. With almost 80 percent of Medicare recipients supporting Kerry’s position, the Bush campaign was faced with the prospect of defending a politically unpopular position.
That same day, in an interview with the Associated Press, FDA Acting Commissioner Lester Crawford said terrorist “cues from chatter” led him to believe Al Qaeda may try to attack Americans by contaminating imported prescription drugs. Crawford refused to provide any details to substantiate his claims.
Asked about Crawford’s comments, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security was forced to concede, “We have no specific information now about any Al Qaeda threats to our food or drug supply.” The Administration had brazenly used Americans’ justifiable fears of a future terrorist attack to parry a routine criticism of its policies.
How did it come to this?
Crawford’s comments were the latest iteration of a political strategy–hatched in the days after 9/11–that has spiraled out of control. What started as an effort to leverage early support for the President on national security issues has expanded into the politicization of our country’s safety and security infrastructure. That process has damaged the credibility of the federal government and made all Americans less secure.
Revving the Engines
In the weeks following 9/11, President Bush’s popularity–which was languishing at around 50 percent in August 2001–soared to 90 percent. By mid-October 2001, support for Republicans in Congress–which was at just 37 percent in August–had shot up thirty points. After Republicans lost most major 2001 gubernatorial races to Democrats, GOP strategists realized that the key to electoral success was tapping into the post-9/11 fear of terrorism and focusing on security issues.
On January 19, 2002–just nineteen weeks after the 9/11 attacks–Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, told a high-level gathering at the Republican National Committee to “go to the country” and tell the American people they can “trust the Republican Party to do a better job of…protecting America.” Soon afterward, Bush authorized the Republican Party to sell photographs of himself aboard Air Force One, looking concerned and talking on a red telephone to the Vice President on 9/11.
As the 2002 midterm elections neared, White House political director Ken Mehlman developed a secret PowerPoint presentation–which was made public after being dropped in a park–urging Republican candidates to highlight fears of future terrorist attacks. In the most outrageous example, Georgia Senate candidate Saxby Chambliss, who had avoided service in Vietnam, ran campaign commercials drawing parallels between triple amputee Vietnam War veteran Max Cleland and Osama bin Laden.
President Bush reinforced these tactics by barnstorming the country–he made seventeen appearances in the last week of the campaign alone–emphasizing the threat posed by Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and impugning the security credentials of Democrats. Campaigning in New Jersey in late September, Bush claimed Democrats in the Senate were “not interested in the security of the American people.”