Hurray! That was my first response to the news that Osama bin Laden was killed by American forces. Good for Barack Obama for authorizing this apparently high-risk raid right some 100 meters from Pakistan’s military academy. And shame on whatever forces in Pakistan connived in allowing bin Laden this refuge—and whose connivance made it prudent for Obama not to inform the Pakistan government in advance about the raid.
What will be the political effect? Economics blogger Tyler Cowen thinks this means that Obama will be reelected.The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait thinks its political implication will be “minimal to nonexistent.” I feel sure that we’ll see a significant upward spike in Obama’s job rating, in his job rating on foreign policy and in the percentage seeing him as a strong leader. His default mode may be to “lead from behind,” as Ryan Lizza quoted a top administration article in his long article on Obama’s foreign policy in the New YorkerJo, which I referenced in my Sunday Examiner column. But in this case leading from behind—taking a decision behind closed doors and keeping it from being leaked—had a wonderfully positive result.
What guidance does history give us? It seems to me that it leans more to Chait’s side than to Cowen’s. Cases in point:
? The capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 did not make George W. Bush an easy winner in 2004. During most of the eight months between John Kerry’s clinching of the Democratic nomination March 4 and the election November 4, Bush either trailed Kerry or ran about even with him. He ended up losing the exit poll 51%-48% and winning the popular vote 51%-48% and the electoral vote 286-251.
? After our rapid victory in the Gulf war in March 1991 the conventional wisdom was that George H. W. Bush would be unbeatable. Numerous Democrats declined to challenge him, many because in voting against the Gulf war resolution in January 1991 they had made arguments—predicting massive casualties and an endless quagmire—which seemed risible in light of events. Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, issued a statement at the time of the vote that told us almost all of what we needed to know about him, which he later amplified as follows, "I guess I would have voted with the majority if it was a close vote. But I agree with the arguments the minority made." Despite all this, Clinton beat Bush 43%-37%.
? Two Democratic presidents, after adverse results in the New Hampshire primary, declined to run for reelection while waging seemingly stalemated wars that were producing casualties orders of magnitude higher than those in Iraq or Afghanistan—Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and Harry Truman in 1952.
? Democratic Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt led the nation to great victories in World War I and World War II. Yet their party fared poorly in the next election. Democrats lost their majorities in both houses of Congress in the November 1918 election, held a week before Armistice Day but at a time when it was apparent that Germany and its allies were collapsing, and Democrats by much larger margins lost their majorities in both houses of Congress in November 1946, 14 months after V-J Day and 19 months after Franklin Roosevelt died and was succeeded by Harry Truman.
? And of course if one wants to go abroad, there is the smashing victory of the Labour party over the Conservatives in Britain in July 1945, after Conservative Winston Churchill was leading the nation to victory.
In each of these cases, one can make various qualifications about the connection between military victory or the death of a hated foe and the electoral results. That, I think, is the point. There’s no one-to-one correlation, no handy rule you can extract from history. My own guess is that Barack Obama will get a spike in the polls now and that the 2012 election will be decided largely on other factors. But that’s just a guess.