In the current political climate, it’s worthwhile to examine how wars have influenced past presidencies and elections, and to theorize on where today’s situations might lead. I’ll review some past times and events, and apply what they teach to today’s environment.
The 9/11 Era.
Seeing how the attacks of 9/11/2001 pulled the country together under George W. Bush’s leadership, and how the ensuing war against Iraq and Al Qaeda led to Mr. Bush’s re-election, Democrats were deeply impressed. Consequently they became obsessed with the idea that Mr. Bush had deliberately “lied” us into war with Iraq for political advantage.
Some wild-eyed conspiracy-theorists even accused Mr. Bush and his “war chief,” Vice President Dick Cheney, of having foreknowledge about – or possibly even engineering – the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. To their credit, respectable Democrats gave such charges no credence, and did not repeat them. But many Democrats did retain an almost irrational hatred of Mr. Cheney for being the supposed architect of the Bush “war strategy.”
The sensational charges about Mr. Bush lying us into war are unbelievable. A child could see the difficulty of keeping a lid on such a war-plot, or on any pre-knowledge of enemy plans. The odds would be enormously against such a secret being kept by the numbers of people who would have known it. Of course, its eventual revelation – a virtual certainty, in my opinion – would become the greatest scandal in history.
Any president who risked such a thing would have to have an ambition for holding the office approaching megalomania. He would have to believe himself divinely appointed to “save” the country, and thereby justified to go to any lengths to stay in office. Unless there was some side of George W. Bush that remained invisible to the public, it’s difficult to see him in the divinely-inspired megalomaniac role. The war against terrorism simply happened, and he reacted to it accordingly. It did help him to get re-elected.
Mr. Bush is not the first president suspected (or accused) of engineering a war in order to improve his re-election prospects. Possibly the foremost example was Lyndon Johnson, who used an incident – the reality of which is now disputed – in the Bay of Tonkin, off the North Vietnam coast, as a reason to order American ships of war into action against North Vietnamese boats. The latter were accused of firing on our ships on August 2, 1964 – exactly three months before the 1964 presidential election.
The incident (real or not) transformed the former Texas senator – elevated to the presidency nine months earlier by JFK’s assassination – into a strong, decisive “war leader” who could take military action when necessary. This undoubtedly assured LBJ’s 1964 election, although most historians agree that his defeat of Senator Barry Goldwater was a near certainty anyway. LBJ won a popular-vote majority of 61.1% – the largest since 1820 – on November 3, 1964.1 In the longer term, though, “Veet-nam” did not produce good results for LBJ.
World War II
Following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), dark speculation circulated over who knew what (and when they knew it) about the impending attack – and whether that knowledge was deliberately withheld by top levels of the administration to produce maximum shock-effect upon the American people. It was no secret that FDR wished to be ally of Great Britain in the European war on Nazi Germany, but public support for this was lacking. Many politicians knew that a shocking war-event would be needed to sway public opinion in favor of involvement in the ongoing war.
After the Pearl Harbor attack, the proverbial “good news and bad news” emerged about joining the war. The “good news” was that Americans were thoroughly aroused and ready to fight. The “bad news” was that we were ready to fight Japan, not Germany, as FDR had wished. Germany had not attacked us, so most of the public saw no reason to fight them.
Understanding the public mood, FDR could do nothing but await developments. Ultimately, Hitler solved the problem by declaring war on the USA on December 11, 1941. Hitler had held to a strict interpretation of the so-called Pact of Steel, which committed Japan, Germany and Italy to make war on any power that had declared war on any other member of the Pact. Since the United States had declared war on Japan, Hitler evidently thought he must declare war on the USA – somehow ignoring the fine point of Japan’s initiation of hostilities by attacking our base at Pearl Harbor.
This inexplicable action by Hitler enabled FDR to commit to all-out war on Germany, while the Pacific Theater got short shrift in terms of materiel and manpower. (Many historians consider General Douglas MacArthur’s island-hopping campaign – executed on a shoestring budget – a military masterpiece.)
The European campaign was concluded on May 8, 1945, with German’s complete surrender. Japan finally surrendered on September 1, 1945, after we atomic-bombed two of their cities. On the political front, FDR won an unprecedented fourth term in 1944, although he lived only three months into that term.
Other presidents found the war-card to have varying degrees of political advantage. After our battleship Maine was blown up in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, William McKinley exploited the public’s war fever in 1898 to go to war against Spain. That tidy little war wrested several territories away from Spain and slaked the public’s periodic thirst for conquest. William McKinley won a second term in 1900, but he also didn’t live very long in that term. He was assassinated at the Buffalo Exposition in September 1901.
Abraham Lincoln was the first American president to win re-election during a war. He defeated former Union General George McClellan, who ran on a Democratic ticket that demanded immediate stoppage of the war and recognition of the Confederacy as a separate nation. In the fall of 1864 General Grant was stalled in a bloody struggle with Robert E. Lee outside Petersburg, VA, and the nation was heartily sick of the war.
Ongoing hostilities ultimately helped Mr. Lincoln win re-election, but only by a whisker. Had it not been for General Sherman’s capture of Atlanta on September 3, 1864, Mr. Lincoln might have been defeated, and our history would have been different. Like McKinley and Roosevelt, Lincoln also did not live very far into his new term. He was assassinated just six weeks after his second inauguration.
The Obama Era.
Barack Obama ran for re-election in 2012, after a first term which featured a poor economy, stubbornly high unemployment, and a deteriorating international situation that threatened Iran’s possible acquisition of nuclear weapons. Many voters were disquieted by Mr. Obama’s radical-left agenda – particularly his signature accomplishment, Obamacare, which had become so unpopular that Mr. Obama stopped mentioning it.
On the domestic front, gasoline had doubled in price to nearly $4 a gallon since Mr. Obama took office. In a speech to college students, the president mocked Republicans as Flat Earth Society members for wanting to drill for more oil to get the price down. Mr. Obama spoke sagely of developing fuel from algae, and of harnessing wind and solar power. Yet he surely knew that the technology for bringing any of that into significant contribution to our energy needs was decades away – if attainable at all.
Mr. Obama spoke of the economy as though he lived on another planet – not the one inhabited by the 20% of our workforce who were underemployed, or unemployed (and seeking work), or unemployed (and no longer seeking work). Even liberal economist Paul Krugman groused that fewer Americans were working than in 2001.
Millions of American families were scratching along on unemployment checks – many surviving on the earnings of wives who had to return to work. The Big O assured us that things were improving, but he needed another four years to “transform” the country. Millions of voters borrowing money from their 401Ks and IRAs were asking if there would be anything left after four more years of an Obama economy.
Mr. Obama’s riotous spending had added nearly $5 trillion to our national debt. He said all would be well if only the “rich would pay their fair share” – while hoping voters wouldn’t realize that confiscating the total earnings of “the rich” for a year wouldn’t fully cover the annual federal deficit. He claimed that this wasn’t about “class warfare,” but about “math.” (Pundits said he must have flunked math, years earlier.)
Nevertheless, Mr. Obama cruised serenely on, causing many observers (including Yours Truly) to wonder if he had an ace up his sleeve that we didn’t know about. In an earlier article I had suggested that Mr. Obama might play the war-card, if his re-election seemed sufficiently in doubt. (Other columnists of greater reputation than mine had suggested the same possibility.)
A war significant enough to affect an election, of course, would have to be more than trivial dustups in places like Afghanistan or Libya. Since the Germans or the Japanese (or even the Japanese-Germans, as my son called them when he was a boy at play) would probably not be hitting us, what enemy could strike a blow so severe that Americans might fear to change Commanders-in-chief in an election? It seemed likely to be Iran – perhaps armed with a nuclear weapon.
As things turned out, though, Mr. Obama didn’t need the “war-card” to get re-elected because the GOP ran a milquetoast RINO who couldn’t punch his way out of a paper bag. In a campaign where Democrats and their Big Media pals threw all kinds of vile slanders at him, Mitt Romney didn’t come out smokin’ (as Joe Frazier would say). He didn’t even answer the bell, but acted like he was running in an earlier era when everybody was polite and respectful. Against Obama’s doo-doo-slingers he never had a chance.
Joe Biden, Joe Biden…
This brings us to the Biden Administration, which has blown trillions in wild deficit spending, renewed inflation, and produced a 50% increase in gasoline prices in its first half-year. Riots and out-of-control crime continue to cause wreckage in some cities; millions of illegal immigrants are surging across our uncontrolled borders; and leftist educators are obsessed with pushing Critical Race Theory into public-school curricula. Epidemic-czar Dr. Anthony Fauci wants children to wear masks and take the COVID-19 vaccine, although they are not at significant risk from the virus. And Biden officials want to exert complete control over what media organs can publish.
With all this bad news cascading down on his “unification” administration, Good Old Joe’s public appearances have become so bumbling and erratic that even some of his fellow-Democrats are starting to wonder if he is really all there. Dr. Jill Biden is trying to save the day by acting like she is “Mrs. President;” Kamala Harris is being kept away from the spotlight so voters won’t realize how ignorant she is; and senior Democrat pooh-bahs are quietly tearing what hair they have left over the whole situation. Meanwhile, more and more evidence is being revealed about fraud in the 2020 election.
This political mess has evoked new mentions of war as a possible instrument of Mr. Biden’s political survival. Indeed, he was in office for only a month when he retaliated against Iran-backed militias by ordering air-strikes on Syria. But now both Russia and China are making military moves that look like warmups to war in their respective regions. From a political perspective, wouldn’t this be an ideal time for a nice little war to make Mr. Biden look all commander-in-chiefy and pull his fat out of the fire?
The problem is that we have to be attacked to get those good results. But anticipating an enemy attack is much like trying to anticipate a lightning strike. You never know when or where a strike will occur. Lightning does give warning signals of dark clouds and thunder, but the locus of a strike can’t really be “arranged,” except by erecting a lightning rod or something else that will attract lightning.
The same is true of war. A hostile strike can be “set up” – should one would wish to do that – by creating conditions that might tempt an enemy to attack at a particular time and place. Just before an election might be an ideal time. The place is another matter.
At this writing the storm clouds are gathering and the thunder is starting to rumble again over Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon. We have talked, scolded, applied “sanctions,” and threatened. Iranian leaders smile, bow, frown, scold back, and just keep on working to build their Bomb. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton noted that Iran has “…used negotiations to great effect to buy time to advance their nuclear weapons program.”
Obama’s Iran-deal guaranteed their acquisition of the Bomb after a certain passage of time. Mr. Trump cancelled that deal, but now Mr. Biden has re-instated it. Whichever way the political wind is blowing, Iran is determined to get the A-bomb, no matter what it takes.
To stop Iran from going nuclear, we’ll either have to go in and wreck their facilities, or we’ll have to get Israel to do it. If nothing is done, Iran will certainly get the Bomb. And when they do, whatever bearded nut-case is in charge over there will surely drop it somewhere. Whichever way it goes down would certainly mean war, and would be serious enough to affect the next presidential election.
My faithful critics will say I sound like a conspiracy nut here. (Indeed, I am a charter member of the Grassy Knoll Society.) But even non-GKS members might wonder if a pre-election surprise could be in the works to help Democrats hold the Congress in 2022, and get a very weak president re-elected in ‘24.
Watch for further developments, and listen for those war-drums. These are dangerous times.
- (Historical notes: (A) Many historians now believe that the much hyped “attack” by North Vietnam in the Bay of Tonkin never actually happened. (B) James Monroe’s 80% popular vote in 1820 was due to his candidacy being essentially unopposed – the third and last time that occurred in our history. That time-period was called the Era of Good Feeling.)