GOP Could Make 2004 Campaign Nastiest Ever
Democrats are already making this into one of the nastiest presidential campaigns ever. It could get much worse if Republicans again play the “patriotism” card.
Democratic presidential candidates have accused President Bush of being a “liar,” a “phony” and a “cowboy” who “deceived” the country into war and now is “failing to protect American troops.” [IMGCAP(1)]
According to various Democrats, he is also “the most fiscally irresponsible president in American history” and runs the government to benefit his “campaign contributors.”
And, some of them say, Bush got to be president in the first place because his party “disenfranchised” black voters in Florida and “stole” the 2000 election.
Depending on events, the Iraq war could produce some very bitter campaign ads, showing Bush landing in his flight suit aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln with its sign “Mission Accomplished” and then counting U.S. combat losses since then.
Or, ads showing Bush and Vice President Cheney claiming that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons, was working on nuclear weapons and had al Qaeda links, then alleging that Bush “lied us into war.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie calls what the Democrats are saying “political hate speech,” but he also has implied what we may hear from the GOP side.
“While President Bush is attacking the terrorists, the Democrats are attacking President Bush,” he said.
He made the valid analytical point that “in their effort to appeal to their hard-core anti-war and anti-president base in their party, [the Democrats] are adopting a weak and vacillating foreign policy that will hurt them with the broader electorate.”
But, the GOP proved itself capable in the 2002 campaign of savagely accusing Democrats of harming the war on terrorism by opposing Bush. They could well do it again.
Most notorious was the ad run by now-Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) against then-Sen. Max Cleland (D), who lost an arm and both legs fighting in the Vietnam War.
The ad showed pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Then a narrator declared, “As America faces terrorists and extremist dictators, Max Cleland runs television ads claiming he has the courage to lead. He says he supports President Bush at every opportunity, but that’s not the truth. Since July, Max Cleland voted against President Bush’s vital homeland security efforts 11 times.”
Similar ads were run against other Democrats; it was part of a concerted GOP strategy. In late September last year, Sen. Bill Frist (Tenn.), then chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told me that he personally approved all his candidates’ ads.
And, he said that while the Iraq war itself was not a fit subject for anti-Democratic ads, “gridlock on homeland security drives it home what [Democratic Senators] are not getting done and directs attention to issues we are stronger on — defense, patriotism, support for the military.”
Cleland, a war hero, was made out to seem to be aiding America’s enemies by joining other Democrats in trying to protect the union rights of federal workers.
One can only imagine what Republicans could do if, as seems certain, the Democratic nominee either opposed the Iraq war in the first place or Bush’s conduct of it since.
So far, the GOP has done little negative campaigning. Bush is out telling voters and fellow Republicans what he’s done and tried to do.
But, in Senate testimony in late 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft said that “to those … who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.”
Ashcroft now says that debate about his anti-terrorist methods is healthy, but some Democrats have bitterly attacked Ashcroft, and the GOP might well exploit their criticism by accusing them of “aiding terrorists.”
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week that “to the extent that the terrorists are given reason to believe that they might prevail in some way and they take heart from that and it leads to more money going into these activities or that leads to more recruits or that leads to more encouragement or more staying power on the part of the terrorists, obviously it makes our task more difficult.”
He added, “That does not mean there should not be debate … as long as it’s elevated and reasonably civil,” but GOP operatives could well take a narrow view of what’s “civil.” In fact, some Democratic criticism isn’t very civil.
Bush himself has raised the stakes in the Iraq struggle very high. Of the violence occurring there, he said last Sunday night, “The terrorists have a strategic goal. They want us to leave Iraq before our work is done. They want to shake the will of the civilized world.”
Fortunately, in their Congressional Black Caucus/Fox News debate last week in Baltimore, the leading Democratic candidates erased the impression that they want an early pullout from Iraq. They said they want to “win.”
But the GOP has shown it is not above using policy disagreement to accuse opponents of aiding the enemy. As low as Democrats have gone in attacking Bush this year, the GOP could go even lower.