Terrorism: The Midterm Game Changer

Elections are rife with possible "game changer" scenarios. They're blockbuster events that could fundamentally alter the political tectonics in ways no one anticipated. A precipitous Wall Street slide. An political assassination. A major terrorist hit.


You don't say?

So how is it that the U.S. issues a cryptic terrorism alert about travel to Europe less than a month before the most-pivotal, midterm election in years and barely a politician even twitches?

Better yet, with control of the House teetering on the brink and the Senate in play, why hasn't someone tried to blame one side or the other about ginning up terrorism fears for political gain immediately prior to an election? I mean wasn't that what Democrats accused the Bush Administration of doing right before the 2004 political conventions?

Have terrorism warnings jumped the shark when it comes to politics? Isn't one party or the other promising to keep the country safe this fall? If terrorism is such a crucial issue, why aren't the sides calculating how a terrorism attack between now and the election either boosts the Democrats or assists Republicans at the ballot box?

In fact, the war on terrorism is credited with helping Republicans add eight House seats to its majority in the 2002 midterms. A gain of two GOP seats returned the Senate to Republican control. This bucked the midterm tradition where the party that controls the White House usually loses seats in Congress.

The country is nine years past September 11th. Could it be that after all of the color-dolloped terror alerts, bin Laden cave-side chats, attempted shoe and Fruit of the Loom bombings and countless three-ounce shampoo bottles on airliners that the U.S. is inured to terrorism when it comes to the ballot box?

"We're suffering from terrorism fatigue," said one intelligence source about the latest terrorism alert. "You can only deal with so much of this."

In short, there can be too much of a bad thing. But until now, no one was talking terrorism.

"(Politicians) will only make noise about it to the point the question might be on the test," said John Pike, who studies terrorism and runs the website GlobalSecurity.org. "Isn't the election about jobs, jobs, jobs?"As Pike says, so far, no one has put terrorism on the test for the midterm elections. And the everyone is trained on the economy and issues like smaller government, reduced spending and health care.

Granted, the European terrorism alert comes as Congress is out of session to campaign for the elections. So Capitol Hill is a bit more quiet than usual. But few lawmakers were chattering about terrorism before the State Department issued the European advisory. Even as the House and Senate both quietly approved a bill to reauthorize intelligence programs for the first time in six years.

"Everyone is focused on the election," said a senior Republican aide who asked not to be identified. "If something goes ka-pow, then people get interested."

To wit: It became clear over the weekend that the U.S. was going to issue an advisory cautioning American travelers in Europe. But when FOX contacted the offices of multiple, senior lawmakers for information about the alert, most had little if anything to offer. In fact, the spokesman for one key lawmaker with an intelligence portfolio indicated this was strictly a State Department matter.

Only a few others weighed-in at all.

"The fact that so many other governments reacted so strongly is an indication of the seriousness of the threat," said Rep. Pete King (R-NY), the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee.

"This alert is no cause for alarm, nor is it cause to change travel plans," said Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-CT) in a statement. "But it is reason to be more cautious than usual."

"The terrorist threat to this nation and our allies in Europe remains a cause for concern. I encourage all Americans traveling outside the country to carefully follow any applicable State Department advisories," said the top GOPer on that panel, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).

Other than that, Congress didn't make a peep about this. And so far, no one is seizing the terrorist threat for possible electoral gain.

"I'm learning more about it watching you guys," said one Congressional aide after viewing news coverage of the threat and alert on Monday.

There may be good reasons why no one has jacked-in the threat matrix to the electoral matrix. One reason is that no one knows who this could benefit. In other words, the Democratic and Republican national campaign committees think they've already developed winning strategies. No one knows what drifting off message from jobs and into terrorism would mean at the polls. Secondly, Democrats are afraid to touch the topic because Republicans historically own security and defense issues. But with a Democrat in the White House, Republicans are leery of messing with the power of the presidency. September 11th proved to be the transformative event in the presidency of President George W. Bush, a leader whom few had confidence in when it came to international affairs.

But perhaps most prominently, neither side wants to be seen as exploiting the issue. So they steer away.

It's important to note that the vagueness of the threat could be why both sides are largely reticent about this now.

"We are saying to American citizens, continue with your travel plans," said State Department Spokesman PJ Crowley. "But be cautious and be aware that we are following, you know, multiple streams of threat information."

"We don't have information about a particular place, a particular time," said Attorney General Eric Holder.

However, GlobalSecurity.org's John Pike says all one needs to do is recall a recent terrorism scenario that was successful: the coordinated attacks on Mumbai in 2008 that killed 173 people.

"That is a plan that was been demonstrated to be effective," Pike said. "The underpants bomb was not effective."

With the election creeping closer, what's really understated here is not what COULD happen. But what IF something happens.

That's a game changer. A major terrorism attack that targets American citizens or American interests within the next month would immediately transform the midterm campaign. And no one can handicap the electoral repercussions of a hypothetical like that.

So a month before the election, candidates are campaigning about jobs and the economy. They're defending their votes. Some are running away from President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Others are distancing themselves from the tea party movement. But the phantasm of this election is terrorism.

Few politicians are talking about it now. But if something happens, everyone's sure to be spooked.