Exploiting the Atrocity
By Paul 0aKrugman
The New York Times
Friday 12 September 2003
In my first column after 9/11, I mentioned something everyone 0awith contacts on Capitol Hill already knew: that just days after the event, the 0aexploitation of the atrocity for partisan political gain had already begun.
In response, I received a torrent of outraged mail. At a time 0awhen the nation was shocked and terrified, the thought that our leaders might be 0athat cynical was too much to bear. ``How can I say that to my young son?'' asked 0aone furious e-mailer.
I wonder what that correspondent thinks now. Is the public - and 0athe news media - finally prepared to cry foul when cynicism comes wrapped in the 0aflag? America's political future may rest on the answer.
The press has become a lot less shy about pointing out the 0aadministration's exploitation of 9/11, partly because that exploitation has 0abecome so crushingly obvious. As The Washington Post pointed out yesterday, in 0athe past six weeks President Bush has invoked 9/11 not just to defend Iraq 0apolicy and argue for oil drilling in the Arctic, but in response to questions 0aabout tax cuts, unemployment, budget deficits and even campaign finance. 0aMeanwhile, the crudity of the administration's recent propaganda efforts, from 0adressing the president up in a flight suit to orchestrating the ludicrously 0aglamorized TV movie about Mr. Bush on 9/11, have set even supporters' teeth on 0aedge.
And some stunts no longer seem feasible. Maybe it was the 0apressure of other commitments that kept Mr. Bush from visiting New York 0ayesterday; but one suspects that his aides no longer think of the Big Apple as a 0apolitically safe place to visit.
Yet it's almost certainly wrong to think that the political 0aexploitation of 9/11 and, more broadly, the administration's campaign to label 0acritics as unpatriotic are past their peak. It may be harder for the 0aadministration to wrap itself in the flag, but it has more incentive to do so 0anow than ever before. Where once the administration was motivated by greed, now 0ait's driven by fear.
In the first months after 9/11, the administration's ruthless 0aexploitation of the atrocity was a choice, not a necessity. The natural instinct 0aof the nation to rally around its leader in times of crisis had pushed Mr. Bush 0ainto the polling stratosphere, and his re-election seemed secure. He could have 0agoverned as the uniter he claimed to be, and would probably still be wildly 0apopular.
But Mr. Bush's advisers were greedy; they saw 9/11 as an 0aopportunity to get everything they wanted, from another round of tax cuts, to a 0amajor weakening of the Clean Air Act, to an invasion of Iraq. And so they 0awrapped as much as they could in the flag.
Now it has all gone wrong. The deficit is about to go above half 0aa trillion dollars, the economy is still losing jobs, the triumph in Iraq has 0aturned to dust and ashes, and Mr. Bush's poll numbers are at or below their 0apre-9/11 levels.
Nor can the members of this administration simply lose like 0agentlemen. For one thing, that's not how they operate. Furthermore, everything 0asuggests that there are major scandals - involving energy policy, environmental 0apolicy, Iraq contracts and cooked intelligence - that would burst into the light 0aof day if the current management lost its grip on power. So these people must 0awin, at any cost.
The result, clearly, will be an ugly, bitter campaign - probably 0athe nastiest of modern American history. Four months ago it seemed that the 2004 0acampaign would be all slow-mo films of Mr. Bush in his flight suit. But at this 0apoint, it's likely to be pictures of Howard Dean or Wesley Clark that morph into 0aSaddam Hussein. And Donald Rumsfeld has already rolled out the stab-in-the-back 0aargument: if you criticize the administration, you're lending aid and comfort to 0athe enemy.
This political ugliness will take its toll on policy, too. The 0aadministration's infallibility complex - its inability to admit ever making a 0amistake - will get even worse. And I disagree with those who think the 0aadministration can claim infallibility even while practicing policy flexibility: 0aon major issues, such as taxes or Iraq, any sensible policy would too obviously 0abe an implicit admission that previous policies had failed.
In other words, if you thought the last two years were bad, just 0await: it's about to get worse. A lot worse.
Jump to TO Features for Saturday 13 September 2003