Bush Returns to the War on Crime as the War on Terror in Iraq Falters
In my forthcoming book, Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear (OUP NY: release date October 18, 2006)
I explore the ways America's long "war on crime" has influenced not just elections but how American institutions govern. Since the 1960s politicians and leaders of all sorts have shifted their focus to addressing problems defined as crime problems and emphasized the tools, rhetorics, and mentalities of criminal justice, especially practices of exclusion and punishment. No office has been more shaped by this than that of the American presidency and no president (including Nixon and Bush I) more exemplifies the conversion of commander-in-chief (and New Deal economic commander in chief) to prosecutor-in-chief, than George W. Bush. As Govenor of Texas, Bush emphasized tough punishment for juveniles, the death penalty, and a quasi crime model of reforming public services exemplified by the test, stigmatize, and punish model of school reform he eventually legislated on the national level as No-Child Left Behind. Presiding over the execution of more than 150 condemned convicts, Bush entered office the most sanguinary chief executive in a western country since the death of Francisco Franco. The attacks of September 11, 2001 gave Bush a chance to remake himself as a national political leader on a different landscape of international affairs and national defense. Eager to declare himself a "war president" and invoking chief executives like FDR, Bush lambasted his 2004 Democratic opponent for taking a "law enforcement" approach to the war on terror. But two years later, as a national consensus emerges that the war in Iraq is both a disaster and one only loosely coupled (even now) with the specific threats that emerged on September 11, Bush has returned to the tried and true path of chief executive as prosecutor. In the third of a series of speeches widely telegraphed as designed to set the agenda for the fall Congressional campaign, the President announced that 14 "high profile" terror suspects will be moved from previously unacknowledged CIA secret prisons to the governments detention center in Guantanamo Bay Cuba (see New York Times story). The move toward openess was explicitly justified as necessary to enable all the families of September 11 victims to receive justice (presumably through the conviction and execution of major Al Qaeda figures). In doing so Bush is making the now classic crime moves of an executive: define a frightening figure of criminal violence, step forward to impose harsh punishment in the name of victims, and dare legislative and judicial institutions to set limits or impose obstructions in the name of due process. Bush (and probably Rove) believe this offers the best chance to shore up Republican prospects against polls showing strong national preference for the Democrats and disenchantment with both the war on terror and the economy. Will it work? I'm not sure, but I am confident that if followed this strategy will close the gap in national opinion polls before the November election.