Loathing of fear on the campaign trail, Part One

Barack Obama would like an easy ride to the White House, one in which he doesn’t have to defend his ultra-liberal record (The National Journal declared him the most liberal of our 100 Senators) and one in which the views of those who he acknowledges have influenced his thinking, most notably Jeremiah Wright, are off-limits. This is only natural; nearly all candidates prefer less scrutiny to more (John McCain, with his back-of-the-bus talkathons, is an exception, but only up to a point).

Most of the MSM would like Obama to have that easy ride. This too is natural. The MSM is ideologically in tune with Obama, and dislikes Republicans to boot.

It is no surprise, then, that Newsweek, an organ that fits the above description more closely than most, has joined the presumptive nominee in attempting to delegitimize criticism of his leftist record and radical associations. Newsweek does so, in key part, through the following claim:

The Republican Party has been successfully scaring voters since 1968.

This proposition is an article of faith among partisan Democrats and their pals in the MSM. The easy response is that it is the Democrats themselves who have often scared voters. But let’s attempt what Newsweek eschews and actually analyze the concept of “the politics of fear” in the context of the last 40 years.

At one level, both parties try to scare voters, and properly so. When Obama suggests that McCain will keep the U.S. fighting in Iraq for 100 years, he’s playing off of voter fear about fighting in Iraq for 100 years. This particular instance of “the politics of fear” is based on a lie; McCain never advocated fighting in Iraq for 100. But if Obama were to say that McCain would keep the U.S. in Iraq too long (meaning longer than he, Obama, would) that would be a justified instance of playing on voter fear. So too if McCain argues that Obama will raise taxes. This charge plays to voter fear of paying higher taxes.

When do such “scare tactics” become objectionable? First, when they are dishonest, as with Obama’s claim that McCain would keep us fighting in Iraq for 100 years. But the problem here isn’t playing to voter fears, it’s dishonesty.

The second case of objectionable scare tactics occurs when the fears invoked are illegitimate ones. But the question-begging nature of this objection is obvious, though Newsweek refuses to recognize it: part of what the parties disagree about is what constitutes a legitimate fear. Should voters be afraid of a government takeover of the health care system? Most Republicans traditionally have said yes; most Democrats have said no. Should voters be afraid of keeping open the option of a preemptive attack on Iran? Many more Democrats than Republicans say yes.

Clearly, though, there are some fears that nearly everyone agrees are illegitimate. Of particular relevance to this election is fear (to the extent it exists) of having an African-American president.

Newsweek wants its readers to believe that the Republicans have been scaring voters through the invocation of race since 1968. It thus recalls that Richard Nixon built a Silent Majority partly with voters “frightened or disturbed by blacks rioting in the inner cities.” Newsweek declines to explain why race-riots (an all-to-common phenomenon in our cities back then) were an illegitimate source of concern and/or fear.

The Nixon campaign was 40 years ago. What have Republicans done to scare voters about race since. Newsweek mentions the Willie Horton ad from 1988, which criticized Gov. Dukakis for releasing Horton (an African-American) from prison for the weekend, during which Horton committed gruesome crimes. We’ve written about this several times. Among the key points are that (1) Al Gore had first raised the issue against Dukakis during the primary season and (2) the issue was a legitimate one — Dukakis had one of the most liberal prisoner release programs in America and it directly produced the horrors described in the advertisement. Most Americans reasonably view crime, and the treatment of hardened criminals, as a legitimate issue. Indeed, the same underlying issue was raised against Mike Huckabee this year during the Republican primaries, this time in the case of a white prisoner released during Huckabee’s administration who later committed murder.

Newsweek also refers to Jesse Helms’ campaign. It ran an ad showing a white man receiving a rejection letter for a job he had sought. In the ad, the white man was rejected in favor of an African-American pursuant to a race-based hiring preference. The fear raised by this ad was entirely legitimate. Helms’ opponent favored race-based preferences, and such preferences mean, by definition, that some whites will be rejected due to their race for jobs they otherwise would have received. Newsweek, like liberals everywhere, wants the social engineering programs they favor — racial preferences, prison release programs, etc. — to be assessed based on the intentions behind them, not their real world effects. But it should not be off-limits to point to these effects.

Inevitably, Newsweek mentions the Swiftvet ads from 2004. Not only did these ads have nothing to do with race, they had nothing to do with fear. The Vietnam War had been lost years earlier, and the criticism of Kerry was thus backward looking, just as criticism over President Bush’s service was. In Kerry’s case the issue was did he make false claims of heroism, and after leaving Vietnam did he slander U.S. forces and engage in improper conduct to help cause our defeat. The issue, then, was character. Although that’s a subject for another day, Kerry ran as a war hero “reporting for duty,” which makes it difficult to understand why the matters raised by the Swiftvets should have been off-limits. Moreover, many of their charges, including those relating to Kerry’s conduct after his return from Vietnam, are indisputably true.

Uppermost in Newsweek’s mind is concern about the role Obama’s association with Wright will play this year. I’ll discuss Newsweek’s specific efforts to rule this discussion out-of-bounds in a subsequent post.

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