Washington Matters


Plenty to Fear from the Campaign Trail


Have no fear, fear will flourish in the fall campaign. Surrogates for presidential candidates and independent groups, and even President Bush's comments in a speech Thursday to the Israeli Knesset, signal that the politics of fear will be a factor in the general election. Campaign ads should probably come with parental guidance: "What you are about to hear may not be suitable for young children or informed voters.."


The problem is that there is plenty to be fearful about without exaggerating the dangers to win votes. And there is a thin line between discussing legitimate differences over how to best ensure national and economic security and trying to terrify voters.

Bush appeared to go a little far in his Knesset speech today by comparing those who have suggested dialog with nations we see as a threat to Britain's Neville Chamberlain appeasing Hitler in advance of World War II. Bush did not mention Barack Obama by name -- and the White House denies that Bush was referring to him indirectly -- but it is a little hard to imagine who else the president might have had in mind since Obama has pledged to meet with leaders of nations such as Iran in an effort to resolve differences. Bush's comments infuriated Democratic Sen. Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said Bush's own secretaries of Defense and State have suggested talks with Iran could be useful.

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Bush also sought to use fear this week to make his case for staying in Iraq. In an online interview with  Politico, Bush warned that pulling out of Iraq too soon could "eventually lead to another attack on the United States" and embolden terrorists.

Security threats will not be the only topics where fear will be used as a campaign tool.

I expect some ads warning that a President Obama would tighten up affirmative action laws and minority quotas, helping minorities at the expense of whites. Former GOP Sen. Jesse Helms used this tactic effectively in North Carolina when he was running against Harvey Gant, a popular black mayor, in 1990 and 1996. Obama, by the way, supports affirmative action, but not quotas, much the same as John McCain does.

And there'll be Democratic ads warning that McCain will demolish Social Security by privatizing it, endangering the livelihood of seniors. McCain supports small, partial private accounts for young workers, as does Bush, and they would not apply to current retirees or near-retirees, but Democrats will portray it as the forerunner of a dismantling of Social Security. There are bound to be other economic topics where Democrats or their supporters will try to scare people into believing that Republicans are evil trolls intent upon hoisting their parents out of their homes or forcing us all to sell french fries for 15 cents an hour.

We're just in the calm before the storm for now, but if this calm looks so unsettling ... just how bad will the storm be?


 



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