Jewish World Review Oct. 26, 2004 / 11 Mar-Cheshvan 5765
Fear this year
Four years ago, the overriding issue in the presidential election was how to let the good times roll: There were large government surpluses and more were projected.
Fixing Social Security, increasing health care benefits, improving education and cleaning up the environment all seemed like good ideas at the time.
Homeland security? The phrase did not exist. Terrorism? That mostly happened someplace else. Iraq? Was that the one next to Iran?
But the ground beneath this year's presidential election has, to put it mildly, shifted. "This election fundamentally is about the safety of our children, our streets, our air space," said Ken Duberstein, a former Ronald Reagan chief of staff with close ties to the current administration. "We know this will be a 'long, twilight struggle' and that is why this election is about the war on terror and not the economy, why it's about security - - personal security - - and not clean drinking water or the environment. This year it's not the economy, stupid, it's terrorism and homeland security, stupid."
The media have, in the final days of this campaign, decided that this election is uniquely about "fear."
But, in fact, presidential campaigns almost always are: Vote for Barry Goldwater and he will plunge the nation into a thermonuclear war that will incinerate little girls innocently plucking the petals off daisies. Vote for Michael Dukakis and he will release dangerous murderers from prison who will invade our homes to rape and torture us. Vote for Bob Dole and risk the end of Social Security. Vote for Al Gore, George W. Bush said in 2000, and he will leave this nation "trillions in debt." (And, just as the old joke goes, people voted for Al Gore and today we are trillions in debt. About $7.4 trillion, in fact, an increase of $1.8 trillion since 2000. )
But there is something different about the fear campaign this time around. Something that makes it scarier and, therefore, more potent as a political tool: The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 have left legacy, a specter, and it is the specter of our own deaths and the deaths of our loved ones.
And if the 2004 campaign has become about anything, it has become about actual survival, about worrying whether we, our spouses, our children, our parents will return home at the end of the day.
"Since 9/11, we live on a different planet," a senior Kerry adviser told me. "Our lives have been profoundly changed forever. And this is the first time that feeling will be expressed at the ballot box."
A psychologist, Mary Margaret Frederick, whose home and practice are four blocks from where the twin towers of the World Trade Center stood in Manhattan, has a more chilling outlook. "In the 25 years since I started working in mental health, I have never experienced the intensity of focused fear on the outcome of an election as I am experiencing this year," she said.
She admits that that most of her patients are "left-leaning Democrats" so their dislike of George Bush is hardly surprising. What is surprising, however, is the depth of their feeling.
"Many of my patients are as afraid of having another four years of a Bush presidency as they are of the terrorists," she said. "And they are very, very afraid. Some are having a recurrence of the textbook symptoms of anxiety and depression that they experienced after 9/11. Some are suffering from near paralysis in their everyday lives as the election draws closer."
Working against this, Republicans insist, is George W. Bush's trump card: his natural, easy-going likeability. It may not appeal to Democrats, they say, but it will appeal to enough persuadable voters to carry the day.
"Americans want to like their presidents," Duberstein said. "Ronald Reagan was likeable. Bill Clinton was a likeable rogue. People may agree viscerally with what Kerry is saying, but they don't want him in their bedroom when they are watching the 11 o'clock news. He fails the bedroom test."
Yet, even likeability has it limits. And Iraq may be testing that limit. Walter Lippman once wrote that the "acid test" of a foreign policy is whether it unites the American people. By this standard, the Bush foreign policy in Iraq has been far from a success, not just with Democrats, but with members of his own party.
"Iraq was a mistake," said Richard Viguerie, a veteran conservative activist whose direct mail fundraising efforts have helped elect Republicans for decades. "It took our eye off of bin Laden and Al Qaeda….In some ways, the Democrats have a point there."
Said Paul Weyrich, a central figure in the American conservative movement, "I wish [Bush] well and admire his courage. But I'm not convinced this is going to work."
Yet few Democratic activists are making any confident predictions for victory in the last days of the election. "Bush's low favorability ratings, especially in the battleground states, suggests to me we should win," said one senior Kerry adviser, "but if we don't win, it was the power of the war card and the power of fear."
More than 70 years ago, Franklin Roosevelt told the American people "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." This year, fear itself is plenty.
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