For the first time since the Civil War, government officials in Washington are talking about the possible cancellation of a Presidential election. While such discussion is entirely speculative-at least for the moment-it is doubly disturbing because those same officials are simultaneously predicting the circumstance under which the election might be “postponed”: namely, another catastrophic attack by Al Qaeda.
The man first known to have raised the question of postponing November’s election is a New Jersey reverend named DeForest (Buster) Soaries Jr. Ironically enough, he’s the chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an outfit set up by Congress to ensure that the awful Florida fiasco of 2000 not be repeated.
Electoral news from the Sunshine State and elsewhere indicates that Mr. Soaries and his commission haven’t achieved much progress in their assigned task. Clearly they’ve had even bigger problems on their minds. Recently Mr. Soaries sent a letter to Tom Ridge, the Secretary of Homeland Security, expressing concern that no federal agency is empowered to cancel a national election in the event of a terrorist attack. According to Newsweek , Mr. Soaries asked Mr. Ridge to seek “emergency” legislation authorizing his bipartisan commission to make that decision.
The reverend’s qualifications for this heavy responsibility aren’t immediately obvious. He is currently the pastor of a large Christian congregation, with a sideline in various other business enterprises. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2002 against Representative Rush Holt, the New Jersey Democrat who is seeking to require that computerized voting machines also create a paper record. He served as New Jersey’s Secretary of State when Christie Whitman was Governor. He first won the admiration of Republican leaders when he co-chaired a group supporting the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas.
Serving on the four-member commission with Mr. Soaries are a pair of little-known Democrats and a conservative Republican named Paul DeGregorio, whose qualifications are perhaps too obvious. A Missourian who has long been associated politically with Attorney General John Ashcroft, he formerly served as an election commissioner in St. Louis. In November 2000, at the urgent behest of the Bush-Cheney campaign, Mr. DeGregorio rushed southward to help oversee the post-election recount in Broward County, Fla.
Newsweek also reports that senior officials at the Justice Department-where Mr. DeGregorio’s former boss is in charge-are “seriously considering” the controversial Soaries proposal. That sounds disturbingly plausible. Although National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice vehemently insists that the election will go forward as scheduled, Mr. Ashcroft-who evidently regards habeas corpus and the right to counsel as mere obstacles to national security-is certainly the kind of authoritarian who would ponder “postponing” an election.
The impulse behind it can best be understood in light of the administration’s own pronouncements.
On July 8, the Homeland Security chief publicly warned that Al Qaeda is planning an assault intentionally timed to “disrupt our democratic process.” He offered no specifics, and said that he saw no reason to intensify the threat palette from yellow to orange. He just wants everyone to know that the government possesses “credible” information about a potentially catastrophic attack. Five days later, on July 13, The Washington Post published a new poll showing that leadership in the “war on terror” is among the President’s few remaining electoral assets.
Ever since the conservatives in Spain were ousted in the wake of last spring’s bombings, the President’s supporters here have suggested that the Spanish election results represented a “victory” for our terrorist enemies-who might, they warn, attempt a similar coup here. More bluntly put, a vote against President Bush would be in essence a vote for Osama bin Laden.
Pardon the paranoia, but there are moments when the administration’s chatter about an impending attack-often accompanied by speculation about Al Qaeda’s supposed purpose in striking before Election Day-almost sounds like a sinister kind of invitation.
It is certain that Al Qaeda wants to strike us again. It is far less certain why they would do so during the campaign.
All our certified experts agree that, unlike Spain, a pre-election attack here would result in an overwhelming victory for the incumbent conservatives. Have those confident estimates somehow escaped the attention of the crafty terror masters? Don’t they watch CNN and Fox News in their hideout on the border of Afghanistan? If they are planning pre-election atrocities, then why should we assume that they wish to defeat the President?
In fact, there are substantial reasons why Al Qaeda and other Islamist fanatics might prefer the continuation of current U.S. policies rather than a change in American leadership. Those reasons will be examined in this space during the weeks to come.