In the past, the president has insisted that Bin Laden’s unknown whereabouts is no big deal. (Here’s Bush in a March 2002 press conference: “You know, I just don’t spend that much time on him.”) But it’s certain that, if Bin Laden gets nabbed between now and Election Day, the president will be singing a different tune: Bin Laden’s capture or killing will be cast as a milestone in the “war on terror,” a development that makes the “homeland” safer and shows that Bush and the Republican congress are doing things right.
That said, which would be better politically — Bin Laden dead or Bin Laden alive? The former promises loads of visceral satisfaction, especially if it’s unusually gory (decapitation, impalement, etc.). Ultimately, though, a living Bin Laden would probably be best for the GOP. For starters, he’d provide torrents of anti-American verbiage which Bush could forcefully denounce. Even better, he’d offer a test case for the new Bush-backed Military Commissions Act, which basically legalizes torture. Every few days, Bin Laden’s interrogators could hint at valuable intelligence they’d gleaned thanks to this legislation; meanwhile, Democrats who’d criticized the bill could be painted repeatedly as soft on Osama.
Another scenario worth pondering: the situation in Iraq suddenly gets much, much better. “Iraq is terrible for the Republicans,” says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “There’s got to be some big piece of good news that Rove has waiting in the wings.” Such as? “Some dramatic movement within the Iraqi government that suggests they’ve finally gotten their act together; then you have some announcements about troop withdrawals, without a major date, by the end of the year.”
Myself, I can’t think of a single development that would prove the Iraqi government’s competence or viability. But without some kind of drastic internal improvement (real or alleged), Bush — who’s now calling the Democrats the “party of cut and run” — would look like a hypocrite if he offered a withdrawal plan of his own. And, as Sabato notes, the plan in question would need to be vague (so it could be altered gracefully later on) and scheduled for after the election. Undecided Americans could be more inclined to vote Republican if, say, 30,000 troops came home at the end of October. If Iraq lapses into unfettered civil war a few days later, though, they might change their minds.
But what if Bush & Co. aren’t planning to decrease our overseas military commitment this month? What if they actually increase it — by attacking Iran? (Forget North Korea; Kim Jong Il doesn’t fit the whole “Islamofascism” narrative now in vogue at the White House.) In a September cover story in Time titled “What Would War Look Like?”, Michael Duffy reported that several ships capable of laying and hunting mines were poised to set sail to the Persian Gulf by early October. Along with the dusting-off of a plan to blockade Iranian oil ports, this development “suggest[s] that a much-discussed — but until now largely theoretical — prospect has become real: that the US may now be preparing for war with Iran,” Duffy wrote. (In fact, the USS Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group, which includes a guided-missile cruiser, two guided-missile destroyers, and an attack sub, reportedly left for the Persian Gulf on Tuesday.) A wholesale war might not help the GOP, since Bush’s handling of Iraq is increasingly unpopular with the American public. But if it were a limited operation in response to an (allegedly) imminent threat — bombing purported nuclear-weapons facilities in Iran, say — Republicans could take advantage at the polls.