Those of you with long memories can probably conjure the midterm campaigns of 2002, when Republicans ramped up for the disastrous Iraq invasion by touting themselves in TV ads as tough on terrorism, while sliming Democrats as wimps bent on weakening America.
Well, guess what: The tactic is back.
In at least five states – New York, New Hampshire, Iowa, Minnesota, Arizona – Republicans are currently channelling ’02 with new ads insinuating that Democratic candidates are soft on ISIS. This move was probably inevitable; people are understandably worried about international developments, and it’s an election season. So what better way to stoke turnout than to shamelessly exploit inchoate fears for short-term partisan gain? It worked for Republicans before – they scored big House and Senate gains in ’02 – so why not try it again?
Granted, a few Republicans do believe that the ad strategy is inappropriate – especially now that President Obama has ordered air strikes against ISIS in Syria. New York Congressman Peter King, a hawkish foreign policy maven, said on Fox News the other night, “What’s important now is, as Americans, we go forward and support the president.”
Ha. Fat chance that will ever happen. Republicans aren’t going to stand with Obama “as Americans” the way that post-9/11 Democrats stood with President Bush “as Americans” and supported his decision to strike the terrorists in Afghanistan. Not when there’s a chance to pick up a House or Senate seat somewhere. Party imperatives trump American unity.
Take Scott Brown, for instance. The former three-year Massachusetts senator, now running in New Hampshire and trailing incumbent Jeanne Shaheen, went up yesterday with a new TV ad touting himself as an anti-terrorist toughie. Speaking directly to the camera (with the requisite flag, Saving Private Ryan-style music, and red tie), he intones: “Anyone who turns on the TV these days knows we face challenges to our way of life. Radical terrorists are threatening the collapse of our country. President Obama and Senator Shaheen seem confused about the nature of the threat – not me.”
Yeah, Obama is so “confused” about the nature of the threat that he spent the early part of this week raining missiles and bombs on ISIS and an Al Qaeda cell. Yeah, Obama is so confused about the nature of the threat that he said this today at the United Nations: “There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.” And Jeanne Shaheen is so “confused” about the nature of the threat that she declared in a statement that the air strikes send “the clear message that the United States and its allies will take the fight to these terrorists wherever they are.”
It’s certainly possible to argue that the Obama administration is confused about how best to achieve its aims – lots of respected think-tankers and foreign policy Democrats are questioning whether air strikes will work – but rest assured that Scott Brown doesn’t have the faintest clue what the best strategy should be. Did he perhaps suggest in his ad that he favors sending in U.S. ground troops? Not a word about that during those 30 seconds.
Meanwhile, last Friday, the National Republican Congressional Committee (the GOP’s House campaign arm) unleashed four soft-on-terror ads against selected Democratic incumbents. One target is Dan Maffei, an upstate New York congressman who’s favored to win re-election. The voters up there seem to like Maffei – he has won three straight races in his region – but apparently, at least according to the new GOP ad, they had no idea he was such a terrorist softie.
Amidst images of training-camp terrorists, the ad announcer says, “In a world like this, Dan Maffei puts us at risk…Dan Maffei, dangerously wrong for our security.” Fact-checkers have already rebutted the ad’s serial simplicities – no, Maffei didn’t “cut funding for troops fighting terrorists,” despite what the ad claims – but the GOP knows full well that viewers remember an ad’s imagery, not the nuances of policy.
But, pray tell, what would Republicans do differently? Their current congressional incumbents gave Obama the OK to bomb ISIS, then they speedily fled Washington rather than craft a tough-guy strategy of their own. Would they send in ground troops to fight ISIS, yes or no? Having once supported Bush’s preemptive screwup in Iraq, do Republicans have an anti-terrorist plan that’s better than Bush’s hubris and Obama’s supposed fecklessness?
Of course not. It’s way easier to just skip town and air TV ads on the campaign trail.
The only consolation is that 2014 is not a replay of 2002; in that midterm year, the GOP’s bid to paint Democrats as softies was systematic and relentless. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democratic senator who had voted Yes for Bush’s war in Iraq, and who had lost an arm and both legs to a grenade in Vietnam, was still slimed as unpatriotic – in a Republican ad that suggested he was soft on Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden (because he had disagreed with Bush over work rules at the new Homeland Security department). Cleland lost his race. Two years later he told me, “Leaving the Senate, it tore my heart out.”
No ad this autumn could possibly be as bad as that ad. Right?
Don’t answer that. It’s only September.
The usual suspects and their lock-step trolls have been in a swivet for 24 hours over President Obama’s awkward salute with coffee cup in hand. One simply can’t imagine that any other president could ever be so disrespectful and unpatriotic…oh wait!
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