How Low Will Bush Go?
If Democrats manage to take control of one or both houses of Congress on Tuesday, the reason will be that voters were not adequately roused into a state of heart-pounding, knee-knocking, teeth-chattering fear.
Not that Republicans haven't been trying. George W. Bush used to claim he was "a uniter, not a divider," but that was a long time ago. These days, he'd probably try to deny the quote the same way he tried to disown "stay the course." The Karl Rove formula for political victory has been to draw a bright line between "us" and "them" and then paint those on the other side not as opponents but as monsters.
Thus Bush openly accused those who disagree with his policy in Iraq of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. "The Democrat approach in Iraq comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses," he said the other day.
Call me naive, but I never thought a president of the United States would stoop so low as to accuse current and prospective members of Congress -- a number of whom, by the way, are decorated war veterans, unlike Bush or anyone in his inner circle -- of being pro-terrorist. But this administration has so lowered the bar on political discourse in this country that it's now more of a limbo stick: How low can you go?
I've pointed out in earlier columns the difference between a leader who faces troubled times with a message of bravery and optimism -- Franklin D. Roosevelt's stirring words about the Great Depression, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," constitute perhaps the best example -- and a leader such as Bush who encourages people to be afraid because their fear is advantageous to him politically.
This goes beyond other scare tactics that have become standard practice. Republican candidates throughout the land are telling people that the Democrats "want to raise your taxes." The truth of the matter is that many Democrats question some of the Bush administration tax cuts because the benefits have gone so disproportionately to the very rich and because continuing to cut taxes when you're also throwing hundreds of billions of dollars at a long-running war is pure fiscal insanity. But in the context of today's political culture, this kind of distortion doesn't even warrant a raised eyebrow.
Republicans are also trying to demonize individuals, warning that if Democrats take control of the House, Nancy Pelosi (gasp!), who represents San Francisco (shudder!), will become speaker. Never mind that she is actually an effective and pragmatic politician, as evidenced by the fact that, days before the election, she has the Republicans playing defense.
"Wedge" issues are designed to invoke fear. As one would expect, Republicans have tried to portray the New Jersey Supreme Court decision on gay marriage -- which did not, by the way, endorse, mandate or even legalize gay marriage -- as some sort of mortal threat to family values from coast to coast. This effort has been oddly halfhearted, though. Maybe GOP strategists worry that stigmatizing homosexuality won't work so well in the wake of the Mark Foley scandal, which laid bare the party's essential hypocrisy. It's hard to portray the Democrats as the party of Sodom and Gomorrah now that everyone knows there are many powerful gay Republicans working on Capitol Hill.
None of this is pretty, and all of it demeans American politics. But claiming that "the terrorists win" if Democrats are elected to Congress -- a statement whose only conceivable purpose is to make Americans afraid -- is something entirely different. The president knows, and at times has acknowledged, that there are people of good will in both parties who differ with him on Iraq. He also knows, or should know, that fear diminishes us as a nation -- that fear appeals to our baser instincts, not our best ideals; that it makes us smaller, meaner, less noble.
He should know all this, but he uses fear anyway, because fear is effective. John Kerry may have chosen an inopportune time (or just the right moment, from the Republicans' perspective) to demonstrate his inestimable comedic timing and his finely tuned political ear. But while Kerry's recent gaffe produced some last-minute outrage, mere outrage probably isn't enough this time. The only thing that might work is fear, and so far not enough Americans have been made to quake in their boots.
I take that back: The president did say that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld will serve out the remainder of his term. Run for your lives!