How Bush’s "War on Terror" Unleashed a Flood of Corporate Political Dollars and Undermined American Democracy
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Last week’s release of thousands of documents detailing the horrors of the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, and the torrent of corporate campaign dollars unleashed by the Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision are the two hottest stories of the day. Most people don’t connect them, but when the history of the 21st century is written, the Iraq war may prove to be a crucial nail in the coffin of our democratic system.
“History,” wrote Chalmers Johnson, “tells us that one of the most unstable political combinations is a country – like the United States today – that tries to be a domestic democracy and a foreign imperialist.”
Johnson added that the reasons why that is can be “a very abstract subject.” But a concrete example is about to play out during the 2010 midterms. Because the flood of campaign cash unleashed by the Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision can be at least indirectly traced to the Bush administration’s response to the attacks of September 11.
That story begins in April 2003. Bush, a divisive president, was enjoying a surge in popularity as the commander-in-chief during a time of “war.” According to Gallup, Bush’s approval rating shot from just 36 percent to 60 percent in the month of the Iraq invasion, confirming “the well-established phenomenon of Americans rallying behind their leaders and the country in times of crisis.”
A year later, as the presidential primaries were underway, public opinion of the war had fallen dramatically, and Bush’s popularity had taken a tumble along with it. In May 2004, Gallup found that over half of the electorate disapproved of the job Bush was doing, compared with an approval rate of just 46 percent. In the April Gallup poll, John Kerry, the eventual Democratic nominee, was judged favorably by 54 percent of likely voters.
It’s safe to say that the prospects of Bush being re-elected looked iffy at best as the summer began. But from that point through Election Day, the GOP hit one message again and again. Borrowing a powerful pitch from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1944 campaign, the administration and its proxies urged Americans not to “switch horses in midstream.” John Kerry’s campaign responded with the charge that re-electing Bush would be merely a matter of “staying the course” in a war that had become increasingly unpopular. "When your horse is drowning, it's a good time to change horses in midstream," Kerry would tell voters that September.
In an election that most analysts agreed would be decided first and foremost on foreign policy -- on Iraq and the larger “war on terror” -- the dueling narratives couldn’t have been clearer. And in democracies at war, populations not only generally choose to “stay the course,” but they also tend to favor more authoritarian candidates. They look to a strong father figure to protect them from the marauders at the gates. Historically, all five presidents who had run for re-election during wartime had won — from James Madison during the War of 1812 to Richard Nixon at the height of the Vietnam conflict.
And that November wouldn’t prove to be the exception, as Bush squeezed out a narrow victory over his Democratic rival. According to exit polls, Bush won the votes of 85 percent of those who approved of the invasion of Iraq. Kerry took just 14 percent. Among those who believed that things were going well with the adventure at the time, Bush won by a whopping 90-9 margin.
That November, Bush’s approval rating rose to 55 percent. By the eve of the 2008 election, it was a dismal 25 percent, but his political legacy had been cemented by, among other events, the chance to appoint two hard-right judicial activists to the Supreme Court in Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.