Scare Them Back

A better Democratic response to GOP fear-mongering.

Of course Republicans are trying to scare voters into voting for them. Why shouldn’t they? As a policy matter, asking which party will keep us from being killed by jihadists in a plane or at a shopping mall seems a pretty fundamental question in any national election. As a political tactic, how could the GOP resist? Scaring voters has worked in past elections, allows Republicans to highlight issues of law and order and national security that have been their traditional strengths, and it forces Democrats into fits and unforced errors.

Last Wednesday, the president joined the effort. “They want us to cut and run,” he said, marking his first use of the loaded phrase to characterize his Iraq-war opponents. “And there’s some good people in our country who believe we should cut and run. They’re not bad people when they say that, they’re decent people. I just happen to believe they’re wrong.” They’re not bad sniveling cowards, I just happen to believe they’re wrong sniveling cowards. The president went on to suggest that a show of weakness in Iraq will lead to more deaths in the United States. “If we leave before the mission is complete, if we withdraw, the enemy will follow us home.”

The message is clear: Vote for Democrats and more Americans will die. For the president and Republicans to pretend this isn’t their political message is silly. And in the end it’s counterproductive, because it imperils their reputation as the party that assesses threats clearly and speaks about them plainly.

Democrats have not responded well to the simple GOP cut-and-run attack. Their message has been mixed and hypocritical. Even as former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Edward Kennedy, and presidential hopeful John Edwards upbraided Republicans for fear-mongering, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee put out a get-tough Web ad that asked voters: “Feel safer” with the Republicans in control? This follows on another ad, by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, that used images of the caskets of dead American soldiers. Democrats are trying to scare voters, too. They’re just not doing a good job of it.

Here’s my advice: The Democrats should embrace fear-mongering more passionately. They should embrace the tradition of the “missile gap”—the idea that the United States dangerously trailed the Soviet Union in missile firepower—that in the late 1950s helped young Sen. John Kennedy attack then-President Dwight Eisenhower. This would be good politics, and it would stir a good and currently muffled policy debate.

Democratic Party leaders say they are trying to punch back, but their efforts so far have been boneheaded. The DSCC had to pull the “feel safer?” ad when Hispanic groups complained that its imagery unfairly compared immigrants to terrorists. (The ad showed several men clambering over corrugated barriers next to photos of Osama Bin Laden.) And the DCCC ad, which used flag-draped caskets, was rightly pulled after complaints that it pimped our servicemen even more cravenly than a previous RNC ad did.

Asking voters if they feel safer with the GOP in control of the presidency and Congress is the right place to start. There’s an advantage in two-word, bumper-sticker-ready questions: Sometimes you want to evoke emotion in political speech without getting technical. But the question, “Feel safer?” on its own isn’t enough. When plotters are captured trying to blow up planes, people don’t feel safer. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’re ready to rush into the arms of Democrats. Those nagging poll numbers still show that while Democrats have made up ground on national-security issues, voters still don’t trust them to fight terrorists effectively.

The question the Democrats should be asking is whether Bush’s policies are inspiring the people who want to kill us. Since Republicans argue that if you elect Democrats, more Americans will die, it’s logical for Democrats to ask whether continuing the current policies will cause more American deaths. Were the London plotters captured last week hyper-motivated by Bush’s policies? The idea is to shift the debate from whether the Democrats would do a better job if they were in charge to whether giving them some control—a majority in one house of Congress, for starters—might lessen the degree to which George Bush and his Republican majority represent an ever-better recruitment tool for extremists.

This question derives from a central one that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked in his famous October 2003 memo: “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” In the short term, the answer seems to be no. Tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites recently participated in an anti-American rally in support of Hezbollah. At the very least, the three-year presence of U.S. troops does not seem to have diminished that impulse of extremists, a lack of gratitude about which George Bush apparently expressed concern at a recent meeting. The administration’s push to implant democracy in the Middle East was supposed to improve the ratio at the heart of the Rumsfeld question, but the premise seems every day more shaky. An uptick in the number of jihadists produced by aggressive U.S. action in Iraq might have been tolerable if there were signs that democracy might take hold some day, if not now. But in the face of increasing violence, Americans don’t seem to think this is going to happen. Reality suggests they’re right.

My fear is that Democrats won’t have the guts to fight fear with fear, perhaps because they don’t want to be accused of being politically craven on an issue where they are weak. Maybe in the end, as a political matter they won’t pay a stiff price for failing to. Polling suggests that the GOP effort to fan the fear-mongering flames in the wake of the London arrests and Ned Lamont victory have not increased the GOP’s standing. Still, if Democrats don’t aggressively ask whether the Republican policies are inspiring a greater number of people to devote their lives to killing Americans than would otherwise be the case, we’ll miss a chance to have the kind of messy, realism-filled public debate we somehow continue to skirt. Democrats should stretch beyond the bumper sticker and ask the really scary questions.