This week, Jeb Bush said that his brother George W. had “kept us safe” when he was president. And given opportunities to walk that back, he doubled-down on the message. Donald Trump didn’t let him get away with that. Paul Campos at Salon:
For years, W. got a pass from his party. Questioning him meant questioning our foreign policy. Those days are over.
Campos asks us to imagine that the Republican presidential primary race is a Thanksgiving dinner, and that Donald Trump is the crazy old uncle who says outrageous things that embarrass everyone at the table. Sometimes those things are embarrassing because they are not true.
But occasionally, Uncle says something that’s embarrassing, precisely because it’s true.
The Donald’s tweaking of Jeb Bush’s W. kept us safe claim falls into the latter category. Trump’s mockery is justified. On its face, Jeb’s claim about W. is analogous to Exxon boasting about its record of keeping the Alaskan coastline “mostly free” from oil spills.
The meme of “he kept us safe” uses the technique that sociologists call “framing.” Wikipedia calls framing a process of selective influence over the individual’s perception of the meanings attributed to words, phrases or memories.
The cultural frame that the Republican Party has so successfully managed to build up since the days of Ronald Reagan says that Democrats are weak-kneed appeasers and pacifists, while the GOP is the party of Big, Bad, War Daddy figures, who deal with foreign threats with realism and ruthlessness.
You might think it would be impossible to fold the 9/11 terrorist attacks to this frame, but you would be wrong. Such is the power of this pre-ordained narrative that, when America suffered a terrorist attack under a Republican president, this inconvenient fact was magically disappeared down a collective memory hole for huge numbers of Americans.
Jeb’s defense of his brother repeats years of GOP messaging. The idea that George W. Bush kept the nation safe from terrorism is something that Republicans repeated constantly when he was in office, and since. The core of the argument was that W. shouldn’t be held responsible for the terrorist attack, even though his administration was warned about it in advance, because he only had nine months to do something about it, and al Qaeda was already around at the time he took office, (i.e. al Qaeda should have been taken care of by Clinton).
The power of this frame is evident if we use a thought experiment: Imagine that the 9/11 attacks happened during Obama’s first term. If 3,000 Americans had been murdered on US soil by foreign terrorists nine months into the Obama administration, no one would claim that Mr. Obama had “kept us safe,” because the claim wouldn’t be supported by any equally powerful Democratic cultural framing. Instead, the political fallout would have been Benghazi x 750!
Or, you could imagine Mr. Obama sending US troops into a civil war in Lebanon, and 241 of them being killed in a terrorist bombing ordered by Iran. And, imagine if a few years later, that it was senior members of Obama’s administration, not that of Ronald Regan, who were discovered sending Iran weapons in exchange for hostages. Democrats would still be paying for that at the polls.
Framing explains why Republicans give Jeb’s older brother a mulligan on terrorism, to the point where it was their family member Crazy Uncle Donald who had to state the obvious.
It’s understandable that, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, almost no one wanted to consider assigning responsibility for the attack. Fourteen years later, we no longer have an excuse not to, and that applies especially to today’s GOP presidential candidates, including Jeb Bush.
Now, everyone is ducking and covering. To assign some responsibility to the Bush administration for letting 9/11 happen could lead to uncomfortable questions of what we knew, when we knew it, and what we did with that knowledge.
Undressing the 50 year Big, Bad, War Daddy perception that supports/excuses W.’s Iraq adventure could represent an existential threat to the GOP in 2016, particularly if the attack comes from the Right instead of the Left.
That is why it’s a strategic imperative for them to pursue Benghazi-gate to the end, even if it’s off a cliff.
If the War Daddy framing is lost, they could be left touting Reagan’s winning in Grenada.
And how would Republicans spin THAT as this country’s finest hour?