RIP, rally ’round the flag

Reaction to Kabul attack is sign that bipartisanship, even in face of crisis, may become a distant memory

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert leads House and Senate leaders and lawmakers in prayer on the Capitol steps the evening of 9/11 in a show of solidarity against the terrorist attack and their resolve to keep government open. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Speaker J. Dennis Hastert leads House and Senate leaders and lawmakers in prayer on the Capitol steps the evening of 9/11 in a show of solidarity against the terrorist attack and their resolve to keep government open. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 31, 2021 at 1:45pm, Updated September 1, 2021 at 2:25pm

Corrected Sept. 1 | ANALYSIS — Less than 12 hours after Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, close to 150 members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, stood together on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to sing “God Bless America.” Unfortunately, that act of bipartisanship won’t ever happen again. At least not anytime soon.

“One thing that happens here in this place,” Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said that evening, “is that when Americans [suffer], and people perpetrate acts against this country, we as a Congress and as a government stand united, and we stand together.” Hastert was flanked by fellow GOP leaders Trent Lott and Dick Armey as well as Democratic leaders Richard Gephardt, Tom Daschle and Harry Reid as members rigorously applauded his sentiment.

Within hours of 13 American servicemembers being killed in a terrorist attack outside Kabul airport in Afghanistan on Aug. 26, multiple Republicans called for President Joe Biden to resign. That wasn’t terribly surprising considering former President Donald Trump, his son and others were calling on Biden to resign before the deadly attack. 

But the broader point remains: The idea of a “rally ’round the flag” effect is functionally over for the undetermined future. 

A brief history

The rally ’round the flag effect, defined by Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller in the 1970s, is effectively a short-term period of popularity for the government and politicians (and often specifically the president) in the face of international war or crisis.  

The best, most recent example is probably President George W. Bush, whose job approval rating soared from near 51 percent in early September 2001 to 90 percent in the weeks after 9/11, according to Gallup. While the attack didn’t take place in a foreign country, it was carried out by foreign terrorists, and the surge in the president’s popularity was widely attributed to this effect. 

Bush’s numbers gradually came down but still hovered in the 60s more than a year later, and his higher-than-normal popularity helped Republicans buck the typical midterm trend in 2002. The GOP gained House and Senate seats and became the first party to remain in power in a midterm, with the presidency, since 1978.  

One of the keys to the rally ’round the flag effect is the disposition and action of the opposition party. Democratic members of Congress portrayed unity in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, as did former President Bill Clinton, whose vice president, Al Gore, lost a disputed election to Bush after the Supreme Court stopped a recount in Florida. 

“We should not be second-guessing. We should be supporting him," Clinton told The Associated Press in a phone interview on 9/11. “The main thing is, we must send a clear and unambiguous message to the world that the people of America are completely, 100 percent united and we’re going to follow our leaders and support whatever action [Bush] takes.”

That’s a stark contrast to Trump.

“This tragedy should never have taken place, it should never have happened, and it would not have happened if I were your president,” he said in a video statement the day after the Kabul attack. A couple of days later, Trump emailed out a story in which the mother of one of the Marines who was killed called Biden a “feckless, dementia-ridden piece of crap.”

Who’s to blame?

Since Republicans had already blamed Biden for the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan due to the president’s strategic decisions on withdrawal, it was a natural conclusion for them to immediately blame him for the attack.

Even if it was an embarrassing defeat and Biden’s fault, that doesn’t automatically void the chances for the rally ’round the flag effect. President John F. Kennedy’s job approval rating ticked up after a botched CIA-led attack on Cuba aimed at the Bay of Pigs, and blame wasn’t in doubt, considering Kennedy accepted responsibility. 

It’s hard to determine whether the dip in Biden’s approval numbers is due to the Kabul attack considering there hasn’t been a lot of polling since then. And his job rating was on a downward trajectory before the attack, from a combination of the exit from Afghanistan, the COVID-19 surge, urban crime, inflation and general economic uncertainty. 

But the current level of partisanship makes unity and bipartisanship a nonstarter. Members who reach across the aisle are often punished by primary voters, party leadership, or both. The political mileage to be gained and dollars to be raised are simply too tempting. 

“In Washington right now, the time for civility is over. The time for bipartisanship is over,” Ohio Republican Josh Mandel, a former state treasurer, said in an interview on NBC 4’s The Spectrum that aired Sunday. “And now is the time for fighters.” Mandel, an Iraq War veteran, is the early leader in the race for the state’s open Senate seat. On Monday, he said Biden had “blood on his hands” and deserves to be impeached.

Now, once-unifying events skip immediately to blame and demonization. It’s what makes the rally ‘round the flag effect and the adjacent “politics stops at the water’s edge” elusive, and maybe even impossible at this point. 

Jan. 6 fallout

Even when a rioter beat a Capitol police officer with an American flag, the country couldn’t unify in opposition.

In an earlier time, an attack on the U.S. Capitol, even by Americans, would have rallied public opinion around the president and his party. Even though Jan. 6 didn’t have an international component, it had some of the attributes that could have contributed to a rally effect. But the insurrection didn’t play out that way. 

Of course, Trump was still the president and would have stood to benefit. But he went quiet during the most tense times of the attack and declined to offer serious condemnation. His encouragement of the rallygoers before the attack and passivity during it placed him on one side of the event.

Obviously, Democrats weren’t going to rally around Trump, considering the shirts, flags and purpose of the mob. Trying to prevent the ratification of an election victory by the candidate who won a majority of the popular vote and the Electoral College is not a unifying event. And that’s part of why Trump’s job approval rating dipped from 39 percent to 34 percent after the attack on the Capitol and as he was leaving office, according to Gallup

All hope is not lost if you’re looking for an end to the division. On Jan. 6, congressional Republican leaders Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell both delivered speeches that called for unity in the face of crisis. But that sentiment quickly dissipated in the hours, days, weeks and months that followed. Now, not only do the two parties disagree about what happened on Jan. 6, Republicans and Democrats don’t even agree on whether there should be an investigation to see what happened. Unfortunately, that looks like the new normal.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.

The flight number of the jet that crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center was corrected in this report.