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Barack Obama's presidency

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Will Fear Again Be GOP Trump Card?

By Michael Winship
March 6, 2010

Editor’s Note: Since the start of the Obama presidency, it’s been clear that the Republican comeback strategy has been to obstruct virtually every idea Barack Obama has for solving America’s problems – and then campaigning on the Democratic failures.

The mainstream news media is now hot on another theme, supposed Democratic arrogance of power as exhibited in several recent – and not so recent – “scandals.” But the ultimate trump card is likely to be the GOP accusation that Obama is soft on terror, as Michael Winship notes in this guest essay:

Comparisons are odious, the old saying goes, and certainly Democrats are dealing with some smelly, stinky realities as they stare down the next eight months until Election Day 2010 and pundits galore compare the party's prospects to debacles of the past.

For a long time parallels were being made with 1994 and the midterm elections during Bill Clinton's first term. Those gave us a Republican House and Senate, the glory that was Newt Gingrich and a Contract with America that after a dozen years turned out to have a hell of a balloon payment attached.

But this week, the mainstream media meme has shifted, advancing to the elections of 2006, when Democrats took back control of Congress, campaigning against a GOP "culture of corruption." Now the village drums are signaling that it's the Democrats who have been poisoned by too much power and made vulnerable.

Exhibit A is Charlie Rangel, dean of the New York congressional delegation, forced to step down this week as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

As Reid Wilson wrote Wednesday on the National Journal's Hotline on Call blog, "Dems have seen this movie before - only last time, it happened to the other guys. Now, a beleaguered Dem majority has to hope their party can withstand a building wave that favors the GOP, and that effort isn't made any easier by countless, and mounting, self-inflicted errors.

"Four years ago, it was GOPers who found themselves on the receiving end of jolt after jolt of bad news. This time around, Dem strategists are beginning to accept the inevitability of big losses, and a sort of morbid gallows humor has settled over Congressional and political aides."

Jeff Zeleny echoed that theme in Friday's New York Times: "The troubles of Gov. David A. Paterson of New York, followed by those of two of the state's congressmen, Charles B. Rangel and Eric J. Massa, have added to the ranks of episodes involving prominent Democrats like Eliot Spitzer, Rod R. Blagojevich  and John Edwards.

“Taken together, the cases have opened the party to the same lines of criticism that Democrats... used effectively against Republicans in winning control of the House and Senate four years ago.

"The mix of power and the temptations of corruption can be a compelling political narrative at any time. But with voters appearing to be in an angry mood and many already inclined to view all things Washington with mistrust, the risks for Democrats could be that much greater this year."

Wilson and Zeleny make a compelling case for a 2006 remake with a role reversal. But in the end, I fear that another important - and sadly, fitting - comparison may be the 2002 midterms, the first big elections after 9/11.

I use the word "fear" deliberately, for 2002 was the election year the Republicans first used the public's fear of terrorism and attendant homeland insecurities as a campaign issue.

It was on Aug. 26, 2002, that Vice President Dick Cheney announced, "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction," and during the weeks leading up to the elections that President Bush insisted on the congressional vote authorizing the use of force against Iraq.

You'll remember, too, that Condoleezza Rice stirred fantasies of smoking guns turning into mushroom clouds.

It was also the year Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss upended Democratic Senator Max Cleland's bid for re-election, impugning his patriotism and running a television ad with pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein that mischaracterized Cleland's votes against amendments to the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security.

This year, Democrats may have been sufficiently snakebitten on the economy and health care - and now, corruption - without conservatives having to do much of anything else. But fear is their ace in the hole and they already are playing it with gusto.

As in 2002, the current election cycle has featured a steady stream of attack and insinuation from Republicans that Democrats in Congress and this time, the Obama administration, have been soft on terrorism, despite a pretty solid record so far snagging terrorist suspects both here and abroad.

Dick Cheney was on the offensive during a Feb. 14 interview on ABC's “This Week” and the following day his daughter Liz told Fox News, "There's simply no way that you can say that the president is using every tool at his disposal  to fight and win this war."

Liz Cheney is one of the founders of Keep America Safe, a right-wing group whose other board members are The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol and Debra Burlingame, sister of the pilot whose plane struck the Pentagon on 9/11. Its stated purpose is "to provide information for concerned Americans about critical national security issues."

This week, the organization put out a television spot demanding that the Justice Department reveal the names of "The Al Qaeda Seven," attorneys working for the Justice Department who previously, as the ad states, "represented or advocated for terrorist detainees."

Ominously, it asks, "Whose values do they share?"

Well, mine for one, and those of a lot of other academics, legal scholars and judges whose opinions I respect.

In the words of former Bush Solicitor General Ted Olson, from an article he co-wrote in 2007, "The ethos of the bar is built on the idea that lawyers will represent both the popular and the unpopular, so that everyone has access to justice. Despite the horrible September 11, 2001, attacks, this is proudly held as a basic tenet of our profession." Olson's wife perished in the Pentagon crash.

Of the slurs against the Justice Department by Keep America Safe and others, Ken Gude, a human rights expert with the liberal Center for American Progress told The American Prospect magazine, "This is exactly what Joe McCarthy did. Not kind of like McCarthyism; this is exactly McCarthyism."

Fear also is a strategy outlined in a confidential Republican National Committee document, inadvertently left behind at a Florida resort and leaked by a Democrat to The motivations of small donors to the party are listed as "fear," "Extreme negative feelings toward existing Administration," and "Reactionary."  

The PowerPoint presentation asks, "What can you sell when you do not have the White House, the House or the Senate...?" and replies, "Save the country from trending toward Socialism!"

As the GOP trends further and further right, they can and will attack on any and all fronts, but in the end, it may be that the only thing they have is fear.
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program “Bill Moyers Journal,” which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at  

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