By Julian E. Zelizer
Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton.
After the tragedy of 9/11, many Americans expected that the forces of partisan polarization that dominated Washington would start to subside.
In the days that followed, there were efforts by both parties to demonstrate their good intentions. Democrats and Republicans participated in the familiar ritual of promising to handle the crisis in bipartisan fashion. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton announced Sept. 12 that it was important to be “united behind our president and our government, sending a very clear message that this is something that transcends any political consideration or partisanship.” Republicans also promised political peace.
The period of good feelings did not last long. One of the most striking aspects of 9/11 was that even a tragedy of this scale could not tame the partisan forces that shape American politics.
Partisanship flared over one of the most important measures that Congress had to deal with in the fall of 2011: airport security. The administration proposed that the federal government take a larger role in guarding airports, but only if the president granted Congress the power to exempt airport security workers from civil-service protections. The GOP insisted that the government needed flexibility when hiring and firing workers so that it properly could handle security concerns. Democrats opposed the president’s plan on the grounds that, in their minds, President Bush was trying to use national security to weaken unions; Republicans charged that Democrats were holding up the legislation to please organized labor.
This was just a taste of what was to come. During the 2002 elections, national security became part of the campaign. In one of the most notorious cases, Republicans launched an attack against Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, a moderate Democrat who had lost his limbs in Vietnam and who challenged President Bush’s homeland security efforts. In one devastating ad, supporters of his Republican challenger, Rep. Saxby Chambliss, flashed images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein before attacking Cleland for his positions on homeland security. (Chambliss won the election.)
Beyond national security, 9/11 had no effect on the ability of the parties to find agreement on almost any issue. In most respects, Capitol Hill looked very similar to how it had looked on Sept. 10.
The persistence of the partisan wars even after 9/11 serves as a powerful reminder of how deeply rooted the forces of partisanship in Washington are. Historians and political scientists have pointed to a number of factors, ranging from the 24-hour media, to the decline of centrist voters in congressional districts, to the dynamics of campaign finance and gerrymandering, as the forces fueling the tensions between the parties.To a political historian of post-World War II America, none of this came as a surprise. Nonetheless, watching the way many of the nation’s leaders handled the aftermath, it was jarring to see just how quickly these political forces reasserted themselves, and the level of ferocity, even as most Americans were trying to recover from one of the most devastating moments in the nation’s history.