When Democrats Pull the “Fear” Card

by Paul Hogarth on March 3, 2008

Hillary Clinton ran a new campaign commercial on Friday – asking who you want answering the White House phone at 3:00 a.m. when something happens in our “dangerous world.” The ad was indistinguishable from what John McCain did two months ago, and within 3 hours Barack Obama felt compelled to shoot a response. For years, Democrats have been paralyzed by fear – believing they must pick a candidate who is “tough” on national security. It’s a false dynamic that cedes to Republican talking points – and as we learned from John Kerry in 2004, doesn’t help Democrats win. Fear is an effective tactic because it causes people to behave irrationally, which is why the right has used it time and again. But at the same time, Democrats cannot just ignore it.

It’s obvious why Clinton decided to shoot the ad. Obama has “less experience” on foreign policy. If we have another terrorist attack, she asks, don’t you want somebody who “knows the military” and has met with foreign leaders? The intent is to scare Democrats into voting for her as the “safe” option – one who can fight John McCain on his own turf. It’s typical Clinton strategy that we’ve seen before: act like Republicans on an issue where Democrats are vulnerable, so that the issue can be “neutralized.”

But voters don’t stop thinking about terrorism just because a Democratic candidate says they are “tough” on security. They’re still afraid of Al-Qaeda – and if you adopt such a premise when picking a President, wouldn’t you want the real “tough guy” to protect you? Democrats voted for the Iraq War in 2002, hoping that by doing so the Republicans would not attack them on national security – and the mid-term elections would instead focus on domestic issues like health care and the economy. Instead, they still got their butts kicked with the “fear card.”

We saw it happen again in 2004. Democrats got cold feet and rejected Howard Dean despite agreeing with him about the Iraq War, because John Kerry was the “safe” choice. Kerry supported the War and was a Vietnam veteran, so George Bush could not possibly attack him as “weak.” We all know the tragic outcome: Kerry got swift-boated on his Vietnam record (even though Bush was a draft-dodger), and his vague waffling on Iraq confused voters and depressed his base. Osama bin Laden’s video two days before the Election probably sealed the outcome against him.

Clinton’s newest ad is indistinguishable from the Republican fear-mongering that we’ve seen before because it doesn’t answer any questions. All it does is show kids sleeping with the White House phone ringing – trying to scare voters away from Obama. Clinton has said that her “advantage” on national security will make her a stronger opponent to John McCain because it would neutralize the issue. But it won’t matter: McCain will pull the same stunt regardless of who gets the nomination.

If voters had accepted the premise of Hillary Clinton’s campaign ad, Bill Clinton would never have been elected President in 1992. At the time, George Bush Sr. argued that he was the better choice because of his superior foreign policy experience, national security credentials and relationships with foreign leaders. Now you have the Clintons arguing that we need a President with that background – in case some scary terrorist threat were to happen at 3:00 a.m. when the White House phone rings.

“This election is a race between hope and fear,” said Bill Clinton in 1992, “between division and community, between responsibility and blame, between whether we have the courage to change, or whether we stay with the comfort of the status quo.” As recently as 2004, the former President gave a campaign speech for John Kerry where he essentially made the same point. Now the Clintons are trying to get Democrats to vote based on their irrational fears.

Obama’s initial response was terrific. “We’ve seen these ads before,” he said at a press conference. “They’re usually the kind that play upon people’s fears – and try to scare up votes. I don’t think these ads will work this time. Because the question is not about picking up the phone; the question is what kind of judgment will you exercise when you pick up that phone.” Throughout the campaign, Obama has argued his superior judgment because he had always opposed the Iraq War.

As a progressive who has lamented the tendency of Democrats pulling the “fear card” when the issue comes to national security, this was music to my ears. By condemning the ad as playing upon peoples’ fears, Obama deftly changed the subject to Iraq.

But mere hours after proclaiming that such ads “won’t work this time,” Obama launched the following commercial with the very same footage of kids sleeping at 3:00 a.m. while the White House phone rings. The ad then argues that we need the person answering that phone to exercise good judgment – touting Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War, and how he helped secure loose nuclear weapons. “In a dangerous world,” the ad concludes, “it’s judgment that matters.”

I cringed when I first saw the ad – because it looked like Obama was also pulling the “fear card” to defeat Republicans. It seemed hypocritical, given that he had just said that such ads don’t work. But Obama supporters have pointed out two differences with the Clinton ad. Whether or not you believe their distinctions matter is an open question.

First, Obama’s ad stopped the phone ringing after 10 seconds – while Clinton kept it ringing throughout the whole 30-second ad for dramatic effect, in an obvious ploy to scare voters. In fact, Clinton’s ad was brilliantly parodied on YouTube with a basic question: do we really want the White House phone to ring six times when there’s a foreign crisis going on? Shouldn’t they pick it up right away?

Second, and more importantly, Obama’s ad then segued into answering the basic question why he would better handle such a foreign crisis – highlighting his superior judgment on the War in Iraq. While Clinton merely raised the issue to cast aspersions and fuel irrational fears, Obama took the question and explained why his more progressive approach is superior. It didn’t just scare voters, it reassured them.

Here’s the basic problem: while the “fear card” is a despicable tactic that makes voters act irrationally, Americans are genuinely afraid of terrorism. Democrats cannot simply ignore it – or condemn Republicans for stoking fears – because they’ll get eaten alive if they pretend it doesn’t exist. As Michael Moore argued in his 2002 film “Bowling for Columbine,” we are a culture based on fear – and 9/11 is only the most recent example.

It’s not that we are a “conservative country” – it’s that we are a fearful country. The trick for progressives is how to make our liberal views palatable to a majority of Americans. And if we really care about what we’re trying to do beyond just winning elections, how do we do it by not abandoning our principles? Unless we directly confront the fear that is gripping people into voting Republican, we will keep getting boxed in as liberal elitists.

I’m not crazy about Obama’s ad – but he used it to effectively question the judgment of Republicans like McCain and Democrats like Clinton who caved into the neo-con fear-mongering rush to War. And for that, I’m reluctantly grateful. We’ll see if he can keep the campaign focused on more relevant issues, rather than let the “fear card” grip the minds of voters.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In his spare time and outside of regular work hours, Paul Hogarth volunteered on Obama’s field operation in San Francisco.

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