More than any other single individual, more than George W. Bush, more than John Kerry, it is Osama bin Laden who will determine the winner of the election in November.
If Americans feel they are at war, they will rally to Bush. By a strong majority, they feel he is the best candidate to keep America safe, prosecute the War on Terror, and – even on his worst days – stabilize Iraq. But if they feel the war is over or winding down, they are likely to vote for Kerry. By similar majorities, most surveys indicate voters trust him more to create jobs, help the economy, lower health-care costs, stabilize Medicare and Social Security, reduce prescription drug prices, help improve education and protect the environment.
So, the key issue is whether America is at war or at peace. And Osama bin Laden has more to say about that than any other person. If he ratchets up the terror threat to the United States and has us looking over our shoulders and thinking twice before we fly, we will feel at war and will back Bush. But if he lets up and backs off for the election, we will revert back to our peacetime posture and likely elect the Democrat.
It is not unusual in Israeli politics for the terrorists to hold the balance of power in the election in their hands. In 1996, the pro-peace process Labor Party led Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party until right before the election. Then, a wave of terror bombings, unleashed by Hamas and Hezbollah – likely with Yasser Arafat’s blessings – torpedoed the chances of the doves and elected the hardliners instead.
The terrorists on the West Bank have historically favored victories by the hardliners in Israel so they can have a hate figure against whom to rally their supporters. With a conciliatory leader in the West, they find it difficult to attract supporters and funds, but with a tough opponent, they can attract lots of support.
But in Spain, bin Laden chose to play by different rules, bombing a few days before the election with the clear goal of toppling Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and his pro-American center-right party. Just as the terrorists kidnap troops and civilians from the ranks of America’s allies in Iraq to deter their cooperation with U.S. forces, so the Madrid bombings appear to have been designed to knock Spain out of the war.
Which course will bin Laden pursue?
The current evidence suggests he will tilt toward an aggressive posture. His recent threat to assassinate American political leaders and the evidence that he may be planning a terror strike to disrupt the elections here indicates he is planning to become more aggressive as Election Day nears.
If, God forbid, he penetrates our guard and actually succeeds in pulling off a terror strike in the United States, will it help or hurt Bush?
My bet is it will help. While many will criticize the president for failing to prevent the attack, the immediate reaction will be to rally around the White House and to grasp that we live in a dangerous world and that Bush’s superior commitment to fighting terror effectively is the way to go. While nations like France and Spain can be counted upon to react to a terror strike by surrendering and running for cover, the likely American reaction would be quite the opposite – just as Israel’s has been.
Voters face a tough decision in November: Are we at war or at peace? Their quandary is reminiscent of that which British voters faced in June of 1945 when they had to vote for Winston Churchill’s Conservatives or Clement Atlee’s Laborites. Despite the continuing war with Japan, they reacted to Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s surrender the month before the elections to vote for Labor and embrace a peacetime agenda.
But this year, I think bin Laden will remind us frequently and graphically that we are at war. And I think that may re-elect George W. Bush.