Paul Krugman touched off an explosion of conservative outrage yesterday when he alleged that the memory of 9/11 was “poisoned”by Republicans who exploited the event as a wedge issue for political gain. Krugman wrote:
What happened after 9/11 — and I think even people on the right know this, whether they admit it or not — was deeply shameful. The atrocity should have been a unifying event, but instead it became a wedge issue. Fake heroes like Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W. Bush raced to cash in on the horror. And then the attack was used to justify an unrelated war the neocons wanted to fight, for all the wrong reasons...The memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has become an occasion for shame. And in its heart, the nation knows it.
In response, Donald Rumsfeld claimed he’d canceled his subscription to the Times, and a number of conservative bloggers slammed Krugman throughout the day.
My take: I don’t really know how you would judge whether 9/11 has become “irrevocably poisoned” or whether it has become an “occasion for shame.” I probably wouldn’t have used Krugman’s formulation that leading Republicans rushed to “cash in on the horror.” Making the charge on the 10th anniversary itself seems deliberately provocative, or at least deliberately designed to provoke debate.
But is it really a controversial assertion to say that conservatives seized on the intense focus on terrorism as a major national issue in the wake of 9/11 in order to gain political advantage?
Here’s Karl Rove in the runup to the 2002 midterm elections (via Nexis):
President Bush’s top political adviser said today that Republicans will make the president’s handling of the war on terrorism the centerpiece of their strategy to win back the Senate and keep control of the House in this year’s midterm elections.
“We can go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America,” Karl Rove said at the Republican National Committee meeting here.
Here’s Rudy Giuliani, at the 2004 Republican National Convention (via Nexis):
I looked up and seeing the flames of hell emanating from those buildings and realizing that what I was actually seeing was a human being on the 101st, 102nd floor that was jumping out of the building, I stood there; it probably took five or six seconds. It seemed to me that it took 20 or 30 minutes. And I was stunned. And I realized in that moment and that instant, I realized we were facing something that we had never, ever faced before...At the time, we believed that we would be attacked many more times that day and in the days that followed. Without really thinking, based on just emotion, spontaneous, I grabbed the arm of then-Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and I said to him, ‘’Bernie, thank God George Bush is our president.’’ I say it again tonight, I say it again tonight: thank God that George Bush is our president.
Here’s top McCain adviser Charlie Black, during the 2008 campaign:
A top adviser to Sen. John McCain said that a terrorist attack in the United States would be a political benefit to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, a comment that was immediately disputed by the candidate and denounced by his Democratic rival.
Charles R. Black Jr., one of McCain’s most senior political advisers, said in an interview with Fortune magazine that a fresh terrorist attack “certainly would be a big advantage to him.”
By the way, as some on the left have conceded, the “politicization” of national security issues isn’t necessarily a bad thing — the parties should be presenting sharply contrasting visions about these issues. And I wouldn’t tar all Republicans with this brush, either. During Obama’s presidency, current GOP leaders have for the most part kept the debate clean on topics such as Guantanamo Bay and terrorism. But as Dave Weigel notes, to deny that terrorism was used as a wedge issue after 9/11 is tantamount to “denying a few years of political history.” There’s no denying that in the wake of 9/11, and in the four elections that followed, some Republicans and conservatives viewed the terrorism debate as a way to gain political advantage and to sow gut-level fear of the opposition. This isn’t a controversial assertion. To parahprase Weigel, what’s controversial (in addition to his language) is Krugman’s timing in making it.
UPDATE: Krugman weighs in again. I second his recollection of the post-9/11 environment being a “terrible time in America — a time of exploitation and intimidation, culminating in the deliberate misleading of the nation into the invasion of Iraq.”
And it’s worth remembering the crucial point that Krugman is saying nothing now that he didn’t say at the time.