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Inside Politics

A look at the 9/11 hearing

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Carlos Watson
George W. Bush
John F. Kerry
Condoleezza Rice

PALO ALTO, California (CNN) -- The Inside Edge this week examines the fallout from the 9/11 commission hearing, predictions of a "close" election, amid echoes of an earlier "JFK," some changing rules of the road, and a crowd of personalities -- perhaps including a Midwestern lawyer as a boon to the Kerry ticket.

Beyond the memo

While there was significant back and forth about the August 6th presidential daily briefing (PDB) memo, the issues that emerged at the Condoleezza Rice hearing that are most likely to become bigger stories between now and November are the Bush administration's relationship with Saudi Arabia, current U.S. safety, and Congress' role.

John Lehman,a Republican member of the 9/11 commission, began what is likely to be a more in-depth look at how the Bush administration dealt with Saudi Arabia, an American ally and the birthplace of many of al Qaeda's leaders.

Democrat Richard Ben-Veniste's comment about foiled terrorist attacks in Boston, Los Angeles and Brooklyn are likely to lead to a new series of hard-hitting investigative newspaper reports in coming weeks about the current quality of domestic security efforts. Indeed, some will ask if today feels very much like September 10, 2001 did.

Finally, while the executive branch has been heavily criticized for 9/11, Republican Fred Fielding's question about the role of Congress both pre-9/11 and today in providing competent input and oversight on national security matters is also likely to become a hot political topic in the months ahead. Among the key questions: Should congressional leaders share some of the blame and are they doing enough to prevent another disaster?

Ineffectual hearing, effective commission

Thursday's hearing shed very little light on either pre-9/11 security efforts, post 9-11 efforts or future security plans. Democrats will argue the session was ineffectual because of rules that limited each commissioner to only 10 minutes each and because Rice "filibustered," in the words of Bob Kerrey, giving long answers that ate up a great deal of time from Democratic questioners, while Republicans generally threw her softball questions.

But, ironically, although today's session provided more drama than new information, it is likely to help make this commission one of the most important in recent memories.

Indeed, as I shared previously, the attention surrounding the hearing and the commission, and the public criticism that various officials have encountered are likely to prod a variety of government agencies to further accelerate domestic security efforts. In particular, expect more announcements this year about improved inspection of ports and trains, greater protection of chemical and nuclear facilities, and more cooperation between the FBI and CIA. While most commissions are duds, in the words of Rice, this one will help make us "safer but not safe."

Volatile election

While it's true that Sen. John Kerry and President Bush are currently close in the polls, I think many of the pundits who expect the final decision to be determined by one or two points are wrong.

In 2004, the distinctions between the two sides are likely to be too clear -- on taxes, pre-emptive war, abortion and more -- to make this a close race in the end. Indeed, in recent history the close presidential races have tended to pit a moderate Democrat against a moderate Republican, for example Kennedy-Nixon, Humphrey-Nixon, Carter-Ford, Gore-Bush. Moreover, in the election following those close races, the new margin has not been one or two points, but always 10 points or more.

So while past does not always dictate future, in the follow-up to the historic 2000 election, it may make more sense to expect a "volatile" race as opposed to a "close" race with huge swings in the polls: Already the president has gone from 12 points down six weeks ago to 4 points up now. This spring and summer, expect to hear a lot about "new momentum" and wildly varying polls.

The JFK effect

Wealthy Massachusetts senator, tall handsome Ivy League educated war hero, same initials: When people call John Forbes Kerry the new JFK, those may be the similarities that spring to mind. Perhaps even the appealing wife and the key campaign role of a younger brother plays into it, too. But ultimately (electorally), the most important similarity may be the fact that like JFK, John Forbes Kerry is Catholic.

The nation's 60 million Catholics not only contribute about a quarter of the votes in most national elections, but they also often make up a key portion of the so-called swing vote. But while JFK garnered 80 percent of the Catholic vote in 1960, over the years (beginning in 1968 and accelerating in 1980) Catholics have become more divided in their loyalties.

In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won only 43 percent of the Catholic vote and much of George W. Bush's ultimate success in winning states like Ohio and Arizona (Hispanic Catholics) was attributed to his success in undermining this traditional Democratic strength.

But in 2004, if Kerry, the first Catholic to win the Democratic nomination since his idol JFK, can overcome differences with the Catholic Church on abortion and other issues and once again make Democrats the favored party among Catholics, he could dramatically change the electoral picture. Note that a significant part of Kerry's support in his single-digit victories in Iowa and New Hampshire came from Catholic supporters. Did you ever wonder why he had Sen. Ted Kennedy working both states so hard?

So stay tuned, Kerry's ability to reestablish an old Democratic tie could become one of the big stories in the 2004 election -- and the most valuable Kennedy gift of all.

A disappearing act

Remember when crime and welfare were regular campaign issues in presidential elections? They were most often used by Republicans as racial codes to bludgeon Democrats -- Nixon (law and order), Reagan (welfare queens), the elder Bush (Willie Horton). Interestingly enough, those issues have not played prominently in national or state politics in several years.

Much of that credit perhaps goes to Bill Clinton who took those issues "off the table" with his welfare reform plan, 100,000 police on the street initiative and a successful economy (which many sociologists credit with helping limit crime).

But another portion of credit goes to an American society that, while it generally accepted the Horton ad with its racial overtones, has perhaps made enough racial progress that using such blatant code would now be more difficult. Indeed, in 2003, Republicans ousted their own Senate majority leader, at least in part for racially insensitive statements. Moreover, the one-time less-inclusive party now features African-Americans Colin Powell and Condi Rice as two of its biggest stars.

Beyond those changes in social and political acceptance, another possible reality is that the Republicans, especially in the South where these attacks were most effective, do not need them as much as they once did. Since Richard Nixon unveiled his Southern Strategy in the 1968 election, the Republican Party in the South has gone from a minority party to a majority party. So, as is often the case, progress on this matter has probably benefited from a variety of sources.

The crowded stage

In addition to the sharp issue distinctions -- and the large amounts of campaign money on both sides -- another reason the 2004 election is likely to be highly volatile is the abundance of key actors on the stage, key players likely to heavily impact this drama.

In the 2000 election, the principal actors were really just Al Gore and Bush, with the specter of Clinton perhaps a third major player. But in 2004, we are likely to see perhaps a half-dozen key actors influence the debate. For example, Richard Clarke (with his testimony before the September 11 commission) and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (with his stance on same-sex marriage) already have had significant impact on the election-year scene. And others with the potential to have intriguing affects on that landscape include Osama bin Laden and the widows of the 9/11 attacks. That many chefs in the kitchen, perhaps the most since 1972, is likely to further ensure that this year's election is a spicy and unpredictable brew.

Other potential characters in the cast include Kerry's wife Teresa Heinz Kerry, Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Clinton Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Another veepstakes entry

This fall, for the first time since Lyndon Johnson helped JFK win Texas in 1960, a VP nominee may truly be able to help a presidential candidate win a pivotal state.

In fact, while more than one potential Democrat can make that claim plausibly, perhaps the person with the best chance to help Kerry win over a critical Republican state (a "red state" on political maps) is none other than a lawyer and alderman who entered Congress in 1976 as an anti-abortion advocate -- the Man from Missouri, Rep. Dick Gephardt. (Interactive: Presidential election battleground "red" and "blue" states)

Indeed, while he failed to excite primary voters earlier this year, the 63-year-old Gephardt is well-known and highly regarded in his home state. He could potentially help Kerry capture an additional 4 percent to 5 percent of the vote in Missouri, perhaps thereby eclipsing Bush's three-point winning margin in 2000.

Significantly, and perhaps unlike other leading favorite-son and -daughter candidates, Gephardt can make a plausible claim of being able to specifically help Kerry in a second pivotal "red state" as well: With his strong union ties, Gephardt may be able to help Kerry secure critical additional votes in Ohio where more than 16 percent of the electorate belongs to a union, compared to 13 percent union membership nationwide. President Bush won Ohio in 2000 by 3 percent as well.

To be fair, many Republicans would point to those same labor ties in criticizing Gephardt. Some Democrats would criticize Gephardt's support of the war in Iraq and his inability to lead Democrats to majority status in the House during his years as minority leader. Nevertheless, if Kerry does pick Gephardt and ultimately wins, the senator from Massachusetts may get the most legislatively skilled VP since his idol picked LBJ.

And check in with The Inside Edge next week when I profile a former congresswoman who would really shake things up.

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