The Global War on Terror -- at least, George W. Bush's version of it -- is fading fast into the political woodwork. It united the country for a short time post 9/11. For two election cycles it united a narrow majority of voters behind Bush and the Republican Congress. Even as dissatisfaction among Democrats and independents finally killed that majority, Republican candidates were betting it would continue to be the single, overriding thing that would unite their beleaguered party.
But as the rise of Huckabee and the decline of Rudy show, the war on terror has lost its salience as a campaign issue, even among those who are supposed to be most focused on it.
People won't be voting for Huckabee based on his credibility as terrorist-fighter. Rudy Giulani bet that his maximalist approaches on war and authoritarianism would make GOP voters overlook his inconvenient positions on abortion, his corruption problems, and his sensible actions on immigration as mayor. No dice. McCain is now rising, and his hawkishness is second to almost none, but he's committed the GWOT heresy of opposing torture.
This isn't to say that the threat of terrorism isn't an important issue -- it is. Rather, the demagogic approach of the past six years now resonates only among a minority of the minority party. The notion that personal safety trumps everything, including the Constitution, our treaty obligations, and basic notions of human dignity -- the precise inversion of "Live Free or Die" -- was politically and bureaucratically convenient for the Bush administration. But too facile to maintain its credibility, in the end.
The question is, now what? We've been fed so much BS I don't think anyone knows why we haven't been hit since 9/11, or what the genuine "threat level" should be. Incredibly, there has never been substantive national policy discussion on how best to prevent terror attacks, and how that fits with a broader American strategy in the world. As Robert Dallek told Bloomberg News:
This is roughly like the time of the beginning of the Cold War, when the country was searching for a wise policy to meet the international challenges. That's really the big issue of this election.
Maybe now we'll finally get that debate.