Tancredo's Politics of Fear

Rep. Tom Tancredo's campaign team put together an ad playing on fear of terrorism to promote his message about the risks of weak controls against illegal immigration.
Rep. Tom Tancredo's campaign team put together an ad playing on fear of terrorism to promote his message about the risks of weak controls against illegal immigration. (Teamtancredo.org)
Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Tancredo's Politics of Fear

It is a terrifying image stalking the subconscious of many Americans in the post-Sept. 11 world. And thanks to Tom Tancredo, the congressman from Colorado, Republican presidential candidate and anti-immigration crusader, it is now appearing on television sets across Iowa, with promises to expand to other states soon: A man in a hooded sweat shirt walks into a shopping mall, sets a heavy backpack beside a bench and walks away before it explodes.

Accompanying the shopping-mall scene (which is interspersed with images from terrorist bombings in Europe) is an opener from Tancredo himself, saying that "I approve this message because someone needs to say it," and then this voiceover, in an ominous-sounding baritone: "There are consequences to open borders beyond the 20 million aliens who have come to take our jobs. Islamic terrorists now freely roam U.S. soil, jihadists who froth with hate, here to do as they have in London, Spain, Russia. The price we pay for spineless politicians who refuse to defend our borders against those who come to kill."

That is followed by the sound of a loud explosion, and then these closing words on the screen: "Tancredo -- before it's too late."

That Tancredo is running in asterisk territory in presidential polls and being all but ignored as a single-issue candidate does not diminish the undeniable initial shock of the ad. Just as his campaign hoped, the ad has generated a flutter of attention for his flagging campaign and the issue it was built around, with Tancredo's allies in the immigration battle hailing him for his candor and others scorning the ad as cheap and blatant fearmongering. (The campaigns of three of Tancredo's chief rivals for the GOP nomination -- Mitt Romney, Rudolph W. Giuliani and John McCain -- all declined to comment on the ad.)

Lingering in the air after the imagined bomb detonates is this question: Is there a line to be crossed when it comes to campaign ads that prey on national security fears -- and if so, where does that line fall? Bowdoin College political scientist Michael Franz, who studies campaign ads, said there is a select but notorious lineage behind Tancredo's ad. With its imagined explosion, the ad most obviously invokes the infamous "Daisy" ad run by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 to stoke fears that electing his opponent, Barry Goldwater, could lead to nuclear war. More recently, there was President Bush's "wolves" ad in 2004, which criticized John Kerry for voting against intelligence funding with an image of a pack of wolves approaching the viewer and the line, "Weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm."

Bush faced only limited criticism for the wolves ad, but Franz predicted that Tancredo will face a considerable backlash for the shopping-mall ad, partly because his low standing in the polls will make the ad seem all the more opportunistic.

Tancredo campaign spokesman Alan Moore said yesterday that the campaign has been thrilled with the national attention that the ad has gotten, even as he conceded that it had been met with "mixed reviews."

"It's been pretty unbelievable. We're getting a great response," Moore said. "People are talking about it, and that's what we wanted to do. We wanted to start a dialogue . . . and say this is a real threat to national security. In the end, people are going to recognize [illegal immigration] as a threat to national security. I think we're going to accomplish what we set out to do."

As for the implications for Tancredo's campaign, Moore said: "The congressman puts it real well. He says that he's never run for an office to get the office. He is running to promote his beliefs, and the best way to do that is through an election."

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