Democrats will face challenges protecting their agenda in the political climate that has followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, political science professor Bruce Cain told about 50 people during a forum Thursday hosted by the Berkeley Democratic Club at Northbrae Community Church.
The country’s response to terrorism will force close consideration of civil liberties and freedom of the press, Cain said. Surveys and research have shown that when the public is faced with national security issues, the concern for protecting civil liberties declines, he said. Democrats must also be aware of people redefining issues such as oil drilling and tax cuts in the context of terrorism, a phenomenon Cain calls “policy hitch-hiking.”
“It will be hard for Democrats to stand up and say ‘this isn’t part of the war effort,’” Cain said. He noted that Democrats will have a more difficult time if they don’t receive help from the press, which Cain said he sensed was still in a “flag-waving, timid mode.”
The media will walk a fine line in their coverage of the country’s response to terrorism, pitting the public’s right to know against the secret nature of some military actions, Cain said. He predicted the country will struggle with the tension between freedom and surveillance.
Cain praised George W. Bush for getting international consensus on how to address and combat terrorism, and said it could help the United States become part of the global community and shake its reputation for being the world’s policeman.
“The agenda plays to Bush’s strength, which is that his administration has more experience on the foreign policy side,” Cain said, citing the challenges Democrats may face during future elections.
It is too early to say how Bush’s current popularity will translate in the next election cycle, but Cain said support for the president could unravel if the nation’s economy is in shambles in the next six months. However, other Republican candidates could receive a boost if support for Bush’s policies continue, he said.
“Gov. Davis might have used the Bush connection to ram Richard Riordan,” Cain said, describing former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan as the likely Republican candidate in the 2002 California gubernatorial election. Continued support for Bush administration policies could make Riordan a formidable foe, he said.
During a question and answer session, attendees expressed confusion, anger and skepticism over media and national responses to terrorism. Cain advised the group to be patient.
“This is not a permanent condition,” he said.
Shirley Issel, a psychotherapist and vice president of the school board, asked Cain about the media’s motive for detailing terrorist attacks.
“What are they thinking?” she asked, calling some stories “recipes for terrorism.”
Cain responded that his interactions had taught him that media outlets are run as businesses. The crisis following the Sept. 11 attacks have been a huge boon for the media, he said.
“You get what they think you want,” Cain said. “(News organizations) think part of what interests you is what you fear.”