October 1, 2006  

Halloween surprise?

Dems fear stunning news from Bush in October could swing election

It’s October, and voters appear likely to turn over control of the House of Representatives and maybe the Senate, too, to the Democrats. So it’s time for an October surprise. That is, President Bush springs something that will change the likely outcome of the Nov. 7 election. Democrats are dreading the possibility, Republicans relishing it.

Former senator and one-time Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart has predicted that Bush will announce “a dramatic plan to exit Iraq.” John Dean, who learned a thing or two about political dirty tricks during his time as counsel to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal, predicts a surprise ranging from announcing a new, more popular vice president to an attack on Iran. “If there is no ‘October surprise,’ I would be shocked,” Dean wrote in an online column.

Predictions of a surprise have ranged from the unimaginative — raising the Homeland Security Department’s color-coded threat level — to announcing that U.S. authorities have thwarted a major terrorist attack, to manufacturing a military crisis with Cuba or Venezuela.

“The one October surprise that would change the entire political landscape is the capture of bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri,” al-Qaida’s second in command, said defense analyst Loren Thompson. But how likely is that? The pair has eluded capture for five years. “The notion that the Bush administration could plan in advance and carry out anything that would be significantly impressive to change the election is unlikely,” said Thompson, of the Lexington Institute.

But as the election draws nigh, Thompson and other defense analysts who keep a sharp eye on politics agree that, more likely than not, this October will remain surpriseless.

“It’s actually hard to engineer these things,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. “And if they had a surprise, it would be hard to keep it quiet until October. Sure, they’d love it if they could find something, but the idea that they’re going to be able to turn the election around, that they could engineer something,” is pretty far-fetched, O’Hanlon said.

Indeed, October surprises appear to be far less common than is the concern that they will occur. President Carter’s bid for re-election in 1980 was overshadowed by the 52 Americans being held as hostages in Iran. Ronald Reagan’s vice presidential running mate, George H.W. Bush, worried that Carter would orchestrate an October surprise by announcing that the hostages would be freed, a turn of events that could have enabled Carter to win the election.

“Everyone expected Carter to bring the hostages home. It never happened,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. Many also expected Carter to win re-election, and that didn’t happen either.

Two and a half months later, as Reagan took the oath of office in January 1981, the hostages were released. Suddenly, “October surprise” took on a second meaning. The timing of the release prompted wide speculation that Reagan campaign operatives had made a secret deal with Iran to keep the hostages from being released in time to help Carter win re-election. Allegations to that effect were persistent enough to prompt two congressional investigations. However, both failed to turn up convincing evidence or a Reagan conspiracy to keep the hostages from being released.

In fact, it is hard to find examples of October surprises that have had much real influence on election outcomes. In 1992, days before the election that would send Bill Clinton to the White House and President George H.W. Bush back to private life, former Reagan-era Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was indicted for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. Republicans cried foul, claiming the timing of the indictment hurt Bush’s re-election bid. But an ailing economy and third-party candidate Ross Perot were certainly more important factors in Bush’s loss.

An Oct. 29 surprise in 2004 may have helped the current President Bush win re-election, but probably unintentionally. That day, for the first time in more than a year, a new video of Osama bin Laden showed up on al-Jazeera television. Looking healthy and relaxed, bin Laden warned the American people of more terrorism if U.S. policies weren’t changed. If the denunciation of Bush administration policies was intended to help Democratic candidate John Kerry, it clearly backfired. And if bin Laden’s reappearance was intended to remind voters that Bush had failed to capture the al-Qaida leader, that didn’t work either. Instead, the video reminded American voters that bin Laden and al Qaeda remain a threat, said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. It helped push the war on terrorism back to the top of the agenda, which benefited Bush.

Some speculate that bin Laden wanted to ensure a Bush victory and a stay-the-course policy that would keep the U.S. military busy in Iraq. “They’re happy we’re bogged down in Iraq,” said Korb, who worked for Reagan during the 1980 campaign.

Korb said he is not expecting an October surprise this year.

Nor is Winslow Wheeler, who said he defines “October surprise” as an unexpected military action in the run-up to an election. “I have to retain faith in my country” that military action won’t be undertaken simply to influence domestic politics. “I gotta be optimistic,” said Wheeler, a former Senate staffer who now heads the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. Instead, Wheeler said he anticipates “a lot of statements and banging the drum to remind voters that Iran isn’t cooperating” and that terrorism is still a serious threat.

Sabato agrees. “The Republican plan is obvious. The president will continue to give speeches about the global war on terror and try to play the same card” that worked for Republicans in 2002 and 2004. “I don’t know whether it will work again, though,” Sabato said. The high cost of gasoline, the unremitting bad news out of Iraq and Bush’s lack of popularity do not bode well for the Republicans seeking re-election, he said. AFJ