Who’s Helped By A Terrorist Attack

Dan Drezner asks the question of the hour — who wins politically from a terrorist attack? One thing that’s interesting about this question is that it sort of encourages each side’s partisans to say it will help the other guy. After all, if it becomes entrenched conventional wisdom that an attack will help Bush, then if an attack happens it will seem like it was partially designed to help re-elect Bush, which would hurt Bush. This is why GOP partisans have been running around town darkly implying that an attack may be in the works aimed at influencing the election “just like in Madrid.” In other words, terrorists love John Kerry.

So that’s one complication to add to a complicated dynamic. Folks on both sides of the aisle will be scrambling like hell to make the case that Osama has endorsed candidate X or candidate Y. Most broadly, though, I think that while the immediate impact of an attack would be to help Bush (“rally ‘round the flag,” etc.) that pretty soon afterwards that bounce would fade and Kerry would get the advantage. The reason is that a successful attack would (a) reveal that we’re still unsafe, and (b) reveal that Bush isn’t doing anything to try and make us any safer, he’s busy fighting a counterinsurgency in Iraq. The president’s not going to be able to go off on another three-year, two-war sequence in response to a second attack, which is going to wind up revealing the fact that there really isn’t all that much “decisive leadership” forthcoming from this gang. Kerry, meanwhile, will get to say something vague about how this shows it’s time for a new approached centered on doing good things in smart ways, or whatever it is you say on a campaign trail.

The question is — how long would the bounce last? The post-Saddam bounce lasted six weeks, which I’d say is a reasonable estimate for a terror bounce as well. So starting in late-September, I think attacks help Bush, but until then they wind up helping Kerry.

That means that if an attack comes soon, the terrorists want Kerry to win and you should vote for Bush. If it comes later, they want Bush to win and you should vote for Kerry. Or maybe they know that’s what you’ll think and if they like Kerry they’ll attack late and if they like Bush they’ll attack early. But what if they guessed that, too? Well, then. . . .