With No Ideas, The GOP Seeks to Scare

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Wasn't it just a couple of years ago that Republicans were boasting that they were the party of ideas? They would privatize the commonwealth and globalize democracy, while Democrats clung to the tattered banner of common security in both economics and national defense. The intellectual energy in America, it seemed, was all on the right.

That, as they say, was then. In 2006 the campaigns that the Republicans are waging in their desperate attempt to retain power are so utterly devoid of ideas that it's hard to believe they ever had an idea at all.

With fewer than 60 days remaining before the November election, the only two Republican strategies left standing are to scare the public about the Democrats collectively or to slime the Democrats individually. There's nothing new about these strategies, of course, but this year they exist in a vacuum. Having run both the executive and legislative branches for the past two years with nothing but failure to show for it, the Republicans can no longer campaign as the party that will balance the budget, reform entitlements, lower energy costs, fix the immigration problem, create a more secure world or find a suitable way out of their endless war of choice in Iraq. What's left is a campaign of scaring and sliming, with the emphasis on the

latter.

The scare campaign is simply harder to wage this year than it was in 2002 and 2004, when Bush, Rove and company convinced just enough voters that the Democrats couldn't be trusted to take on the terrorists. This week, for instance, House Republicans will bring up their annual resolution commemorating the horror and heroism of Sept. 11, 2001, which this year comes complete with some additional language that reaffirms their deport-'em-all approach to immigration. That, the Republicans hope, may just force some Democrats to vote no -- proof positive of their secret sympathies for al-Qaeda.

A similarly threadbare calculation lies behind the Republicans' sudden rush to force a vote on rules governing the tribunals that will judge the 14 leaders of al-Qaeda whom the president abruptly decided to put on trial. The administration's bill establishes procedures clearly designed to repulse sentient beings, such as a provision denying defendants the right to see the evidence introduced against them. The political problem for the Republicans is that there are a few sentient beings in their own ranks, notably Sens. John McCain, John Warner and Lindsey Graham, a former military reserve judge who has said that a court would strike down that provision "in 30 seconds." With McCain, Warner and Graham gumming up the works by insisting on trials that reflect the influence of the Enlightenment, Democrats have been able to stay mum on a controversy that exists only because it was supposed to embarrass them.

It was all so much simpler in the days when the Democrats' reservations about the war in Iraq could be depicted as revealing their irresolution in the fight against terror. Today, alas, most Americans see Iraq as the horrific sectarian conflict it has in fact become, and in a recent poll for Time magazine, 54 percent said our involvement there was actually hurting our efforts to combat terrorism. The president, though, persists in depicting the war as the front line in the war on jihadists; to admit otherwise would be to admit that those who propose redeploying some of our forces, as Democratic congressional leaders have advocated, aren't necessarily soft on bin Laden.

But the public isn't falling for the third iteration of the scare campaign -- not yet, anyway -- so the Republicans have fallen back on slime. According to a report in Sunday's Post by Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza, the National Republican Congressional Committee "plans to spend more than 90 percent of its $50 million-plus advertising budget on what officials described as negative ads" that attack Democratic candidates on their business dealings, legal battles and legislative votes that can be taken out of context.

What's a party to do when its high road leads nowhere but down? The Republicans tried privatizing Social Security, but their numbers never added up. They tried spreading democracy with unilateral, preventive war but instead unleashed a sectarian bloodbath. So the party of big ideas, of Milton Friedman and the neoconservatives, is now just one big Swift Boat flotilla, its ideas sunk of their own dead weight, kept afloat solely by its opposition research. For their part, the Democrats still champion common security; they call for a government that can build dikes and reduce the costs of college and medication and that knows that remaking the world becomes more plausible when some of the world is actually willing to go along with us. Those are, in the campaign of 2006, just about the only ideas in play.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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