Feb 5, 2009

Why Are Democrats So Bad At "The Politics of Fear"?

For years, the Bush administration managed to get its programs through Congress (even through the Democratic Congress post-2006) courtesy of what angry Democrats decried as 'the politics of fear.' What they meant, I've presumed, is that to beat the opposition, Bush et. al. would say "if you don't do this, blood will be on your hands for the disaster that ensued." I always found it kind of laughable that Democrats would argue about how mean that was, mostly because they wished they could use it to win political battles (a la Republicans making fun of Obama for having an uber-following; they were just jealous that no one particularly loved McCain, right or left). Now, with Democrats firmly in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, they are trying their hand at fear, and you know what? They are really, really bad at it.

President Obama recently said that without immediate action, the nation would suffer 'catastrophe' and that 'we may never recover.' Nancy Pelosi is going out there saying that America is losing 500 million jobs per month. Left-leaning columnists (especially those who know nothing about economics) are saying that something must be done NOW. No one, however, seems to be heeding their warnings.

Overstatements have long been a staple of American politics. When you are in the party out of power, now is the worst time in history. When you are in power, now is the best we've ever had it. When campaigning, candidates throw out heavy rhetorical bombs to elicit a response. When governing, they try to make motives and works as pure as Aquafina. One caveat, however, has always been that you must be careful with your overstating. This, I think, is where the Democrats are bumbling.

Whenever George Bush would engage in 'fear tactics' to win a political debate, he would put the argument in simple terms: vote with me, keep us safe, but vote with them, open us to attack. For gay marriage, it was: vote with me, keep your family intact, but vote with them, destroy the family. Right or wrong, these dichotomies set up a simple choice with a clear answer (of course I want to be safe! Of course I want to protect families!). When it came to the banking bailout, President Bush was able to piggyback off of the failure of Lehman Bros. and say "if we don't do this now, the financial sector will collapse!" (now, that was true, but it was still 'the politics of fear'). The new President and Congress have failed to set up adequate dichotomies for the situation. Though the economy stinks, people don't see massive firms shutting down and their 401K's falling apart; they see layoffs. In response, President Obama says "it will be a catastrophe if we don't reseed the National Mall and rebuild old bridges!" The American people go "uh....what?" He's also disparaging something which still resonates with the American people: tax cuts. Democrats will get nowhere as long as they keep talking about tax cuts as if they themselves are a bad thing. People don't buy it. Nancy Pelosi, for her part, defends every billion-dollar item included into the monstrosity of a stimulus (including family planning and condom distribution). Then she goes forth and says "support this, or jobs will be lost!" People don't buy it. The emergency isn't before their eyes.

The politics of fear is often pertinent, especially in times of crisis. However, it must be used wisely, based on facts, and it must set up an easily understandable choice. Until the President and Congress figure that out, they will see support for the stimulus (even if it is passed) slowly erode under their feet.

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