Spanish Lessons

How should political leaders in the United States read the recent events in Spain?

Wed Mar. 17, 2004 4:00 AM EST

What happened in Spain -- a catastrophic terrorist attack followed by a turn-on-a-dime revolt against the country's pro-war government -- no doubt contains an election-year lesson for America's political leaders (and would-be leaders). Precisely what that lesson is remains unclear.

Do the attacks bear out George W. Bush's view that the terrorists are unappeasable and that the fight against them must never falter? Or signal that his war on terror has failed in its most basic aim -- to wipe out Al Qaeda and prevent further attacks? Does the political rebuke to the party that took Spain into an unpopular war, and the elevation of one that advocates pulling Spain’s troops from Iraq, expose the Potemkin character of Bush's "coalition"? Or does it vindicate the hawkish view of Europeans as spineless appeasers? Could a pre-election attack on U.S. soil get Bush bounced out of office, as it did Aznar's anointed heir? Or would it drive anxious voters into the arms of the "war president" they know?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

We've learned, certainly, that global terrorism -- and a candidate’s handling of it -- can shape the outcome of an election. (This lesson won't be lost on Tony Blair, who also took his country to war over popular opposition.) In the U.S., the war on terror is already one of the major issues in this election, with Bush running as a battle-tested commander in chief, and Kerry as someone who, while no less committed to routing terror, will combat it without alienating allies and stirring up fresh resentments against the United States. But because the meaning of what happened in Spain is not yet clear -- or at least isn't agreed upon -- both sides have been treading cautiously this week.

Kerry's essential problem is that in criticizing Bush, he doesn't want to seem to be conceding victory to Al Qaeda. Hence, in a Monday speech, he conspicuously sidestepped the issue of the bombings and their political fallout -- a sign, said the New York Times, citing top Democrats, that "the situation in Spain now was too uncertain and delicate to use politically."

As Bob Graham, the Florida senator, told the paper:

"I don't think any American politician can run for president on a platform that they hope bad things happen to the people of America, and some might interpret an evaluation of the Spain tragedy on the campaign trail as a statement that we're next."

(Other Democrats suggested American voters would draw the conclusion for themselves that the bombings in Spain exposed Bush's failure to make Americans safer.)

Kerry, it's true, slipped up recently when he boasted that many foreign leaders are rooting for him against Bush. This is probably true; but it doesn't help Kerry to be associated with leaders like, say, Spain's new PM, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (who undoubtedly would prefer to see Bush out). Kerry, after all, is a lot closer to Bush on terrorism than he is to Zapatero -- or Chirac and Schroeder, for that matter. ("I don't fault George Bush for doing too much in the war on terror, as some do. I believe he's done too little," he said on Monday.)

David Rothkopf, a former Clinton trade official told the Wall Street Journal that Kerry:

"shouldn't act like he is identified too closely with the president's opponents overseas. I don't think a candidate for president of the United States should appear to be suggesting that al Qaeda attacks are working."

The White House, too, has been reluctant to take a strong line one way or the other. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan was asked repeatedly on Monday whether the administration thought the attacks in Spain had been intended to affect the outcome of the election there, whether the administration was concerned that the terrorists had prevailed, and whether the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq would pose a problem. He dodged.

Inevitably, what happened in Spain raises questions about the effect another terrorist attack on U.S. soil would have politically. It’s impossible to say whether it would drive Americans toward Bush, as after 9/11, or away from him, as in Spain.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, it could go either way.

Political analysts generally feel such an event would aid President Bush, by rallying the nation around the leader at a time of tragedy; after Sept. 11, after all, Mr. Bush's poll ratings soared. But the incumbent conservative party in Spain led in the polls in the days before the train bombings. The attack -- combined with accusations that the government manipulated information about it -- turned public opinion in favor of the Socialist opposition.

Right now U.S. voters seem to care more about jobs, the economy, and health care, than terrorism and war. But, as the Spain attacks show us, that could change quickly. (And by the way, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows that Americans are less optimistic about the war in Iraq than they were a year ago at this time.) Kerry may be hoping to do as Kennedy did when against then-incumbent VP Nixon in the 1960 election. As the Wall Street Journal notes, Nixon was one of the country's most vocal anti-Communist cold warriors, but Mr. Kennedy succeeded in arguing that the Republicans hadn't done enough to counter the Soviet threat.

Meanwhile, the Bush campaign is trying to use the attacks on Spain to point out that al Qaeda would prefer anyone but Bush be in office because terrorists fear him the most. But you could argue this either way: it's just as likely that Al Qaeda and other terror groups would prefer to have Bush stay in office for his value as a recruiting tool.

It's too early to divine how this will all play out. Zapatero, though, clearly has his opinions about the correct lessons to be drawn from Spain's experience. The man who calls the invasion and occupation of Iraq "a great disaster" also said that his election would send a signal to other countries facing elections, including the United States; if voters disapprove of the war in Iraq, and its occupation, they can take their protest to the polls and reverse policy.

"My impression is that what happened now that the Socialist government in Spain has taken power will have a great impact in the November elections in North America in the duel between Bush and Kerry."

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.