Political Strategy: Fear And Doubt On All Levels genre: Just Jihad & Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

The following posting is the tenth entry in a continuing Thought Theater dialogue on political strategy. The first posting, Political Strategy: The Opening Dialogue, can be found here, the second posting, Political Strategy: Beyond Extremist Labels can be found here, the third posting, Political Strategy: The Numbers Speak can be found here, the fourth posting, Political Strategy: Splitting The Baby can be found here, the fifth posting, Political Strategy: Examining Potential Outcomes can be found here, the sixth posting, Political Strategy: Voter Mobilization can be found here, the seventh posting, Political Strategy: Bad Math & Inconsistency can be found here, the eighth posting, Political Strategy: The Horse Race Begins can be found here, and the ningth posting, Political Strategy: Time To Play Offense. can be found here.

In addition, other related postings can be found here, here, here, and here.

Let the games begin has been the opening line of the Olympic games for centuries...but in a classic example of Karl Rove politicking, the expression will seemingly mark the initiation of the final round in the GOP's campaign strategy. That strategy will invoke another well know expression..."The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" but in this instance the goal isn't going to be an attempt to inoculate Americans from embracing their fears...it is going to be a wholesale effort to scare them on all levels.

Thought Theater has previously discussed "Terror Management Theory"...a psychological construct whereby it has been demonstrated that people react to reminders of their pending mortality in predictable ways such that it is possible to manipulate their anxiety. The Wall Street Journal expanded upon the subject in a recent article about the impact of fear on elections.

Clearly, the GOP has used the threat of terror effectively in that manner for the last two election cycles and will also use it in this 2006 midterm election. Thought Theater recently pointed out the deliberate new language being used by the Bush administration to define the war on terror as an effort to "extend the caliphate" and Newsweek also discusses the use of this term "caliphate" in a new article.

In the last few days I've noticed that a number of GOP talking heads have begun to use fear in a number of new ways...and it looks like it is well on its way to becoming a deafening litany. Fred Barnes, a conservative Fox News contributor and editor of The Weekly Standard has a new article that I will return to after explaining the conditions that made this minor, though meaningful, shift in strategy necessary. Let me explain the shift that I believe has taken place.

Here's the backdrop. In the wake of the Mark Foley scandal, the release of damaging information from the National Intelligence Estimate, the new book from Bob Woodward, and increasingly bad news from Iraq, the media has focused on the potential for a Democratic tidal wave and the demise of GOP control in the House and possibly the Senate. Analysts and pollsters are abuzz in their attempts to calculate the size of this apparent wave and the White House is struggling to garner attention for the issues they feel would help Republican candidates in November.

So what can the GOP do to motivate its voting base? I've long suggested that in order to know what Karl Rove is thinking, one has to abandon conventional constructs. In fact, I believe his approach is counterintuitive by design such that he first sets out to define the issues that are most detrimental to the GOP and then he looks for ways to take that issue and make it a focal point in his campaign rhetoric. The recent examples are numerous.

First the Foley scandal. On its surface it looks like a very damaging issue for the GOP...it seemingly suggests a disregard for the values they purport to promote, it suggests that they have simply given lip service to evangelical voters, it reinforces the accusations of corruption, and it looks like a tacit acceptance of the gay lifestyle. Instead, Rove elects to run with the issue and in fact seeks to get out in front on the topic.

One need only listen to talk radio or see who is appearing on the numerous news programs raising the possibility that the GOP was the victim of its own compassion. The spin is designed to suggest that they welcomed gays into the Republican's "big tent" only to find out that they could not be trusted with the power they were given and alas...the gay lifestyle...though they hate to say so...just might be the real issue underlying this scandal. If you have any doubts, let me provide you with the rhetoric I've heard when listening to them describe this gay conspiracy...velvet mafia, gay cabal, and a clandestine ring of homosexuals to name a few.

This rhetoric is intended to portray the GOP as victim and to do so by characterizing their mistake as the noble extension of compassion in an effort to treat gays equitably and to avoid acts of discrimination. Unfortunately, they now insinuate that the benefactors of this decency...gays...are a suspect group and we mustn't allow them to enact their anti-family, morally bankrupt homosexual agenda. I anticipate that argument will be a key component of the homilies given in churches between now and the November election.

It does two important things...it affirms the goodness of those affiliated with the GOP and it conforms to established religious teachings. Lastly, it compels evangelicals to vote in order to continue their efforts to uphold traditional values against the onslaught that would dismantle them. In other words, that which they have long feared still exists and still seeks to erode and redefine American life.

Let me return to the Fred Barnes article. I would suggest that readers follow the above link to see the page upon which the article appears. I ask readers to do this because I think it is important to understand the subtleties that are part and parcel of the GOP's fully organized and meticulously coordinated efforts. The page upon which the article appears has in its header a banner that asks readers to "Protect the Republican Senate Majority" by clicking on a link that takes them to an NRSC page designed to recruit support, financial and otherwise, to hold their Senate majority. The advertisement actually appears a second time further down the page.

That banner in conjunction with Fred Barnes article titled "How Bad Will It Be?" is clear evidence of this shift in the GOP strategy. Here's what I think one can discern from this example. One, the GOP is going to focus on holding the Senate...a strategy that has been reported in the last few days and seems to support the suspicion that the Republican's believe they cannot hold the House. Two, the tenor of the article is intended to alarm the GOP base and point out exactly what is at stake and to elucidate the consequences of losing. Tying back to Rove, this is clearly consistent with the counterintuitive approach I contend is the hallmark of his campaign prowess. It starts with looking at the worst case scenario and then working backwards. If that analysis suggests that the GOP will lose the House and possibly the Senate, then that reality must be transformed into a campaign message that has the potential to alter (reverse) that eventuality. Let's look at some excerpts from the article.

REPUBLICANS and conservatives, brace yourselves! Strategists and consultants of both parties now believe the House is lost and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi will become speaker. At best, Republicans will cling to control of the Senate by a single seat, two at most. For many election cycles, Republicans have been the boys of October, using paid media and superior campaign skills to make up lost ground and win in November. This year, they were the boys of September, rallying strongly until that fateful day, September 29, when the Mark Foley scandal erupted. October has been a disaster so far. A strong finishing kick for Republicans, minimizing Democratic gains, is possible. They pulled one off brilliantly in President Bush's first midterm election in 2002. But recovery will be harder this time, a lot harder.

The most overlooked election indicator is the level of voter enthusiasm. In every election from 1994 through 2004, Republicans were more enthusiastic than Democrats. That was a decade of Republican growth. This year Democrats are more excited. And it's measurable. In 2002, 42 percent of Republicans said they were more enthusiastic than usual about the election. Thirty-eight percent of Democrats said the same. In 2006, the numbers have flipped. Republican enthusiasm has dipped to 39 percent and Democratic enthusiasm has jumped to 48 percent. Enthusiasm affects turnout. Gloomy voters are less inclined to vote.

As much as I oppose the Republican agenda, I do marvel at their strategic acumen. Look at how Barnes frames the problem. He lays out the worst case immediately...Nancy Pelosi will be the speaker of the House and maybe, just maybe the Republicans can hold the Senate. He throws in the words "scandal and disaster" for good measure. He then quickly pivots to tell readers why this is the likely reality...a lack of voter enthusiasm within the Republican Party. I would argue that the article is a mix of reverse psychology and a speech by a coach to his team at halftime whereby he tells them they're going to lose if they don't wake up and do something with the little time they have left.

If politics were fair, Democrats would be in as much trouble as Republicans. And they'd be just as vulnerable. They've been obstructionist, anti-tax-cut, soft on terrorism, and generally obnoxious. On top of that, Pelosi is the most unpopular national politician in America. But in the sixth year of the Bush presidency, with a GOP-run Congress, Democrats aren't the issue. Republicans are.

In his stump speeches, the president concentrates on terror and taxes. And the contrast he draws between terror-fighting, tax-cutting Republicans and wimpy, taxaholic Democrats is reasonably accurate. But it's failing to attract independents or lure disgruntled conservatives back to the Republican fold.

Should Democrats capture the House, "they would raise your taxes and figure out new ways to spend your money," Bush said at a rally in Chicago last week. "It's amazing what happens when you cut taxes. The economy grows [and] you end up with more tax revenues." On national security, he said, "If the security of the United States is the most important issue, then part of this issue is which party has been willing to step up and give those charged with protecting you the tools necessary to do so." He didn't need to identify which party has and which hasn't.

The problem here is that national security isn't the leading campaign issue. And saying it should be won't make it so. What's needed is an event--a big event--to crystallize the issue in a way that highlights Republican strength and Democratic weakness. It was two events--the foiled British terrorist plot and the need to comply with a Supreme Court decision on handling captured terrorists--that led to the Republican mini-rally in September.

Of course there's little time left for a major event to occur. The North Korean bomb test wasn't big enough to change the course of the campaign. So Republicans may have to rely on their two remaining assets: They have more money than the Democrats and a voter turnout operation second to none.

Despite their commanding position with the election only weeks away, Democrats are fearful of a last-minute Republican gambit. What if White House aide Karl Rove has arranged for the capture of Osama bin Laden so it can be announced a few days prior to November 7? Rove is clever, but not that clever. Which is why Republicans and conservatives need to prepare themselves for bad news on Election Night.

More of the same but note how he tells his readers that they cannot count upon an October surprise to help the Republicans hold power. Further, he points out that the ace in the hole, the magician, the architect, Karl Rove won't even be able to save the Party from the inevitable. And how will the GOP describe this ominous reality? They will do it very simply...by defining what voters should fear with words similar to this..."Democrats won't protect you from terrorism, they haven't the stomach to make Iraq and Afghanistan succeed and that means the terrorists will be on a fast track to the homeland, your borders will remain porous and immigrants will alter your way of life, money will be taken out of your pocket through rampant taxation, and your leaders will be weak liberals like Nancy Pelosi. Is that scary enough for you? If not, you still have three weeks to change your mind. It looks like you better get busy and save yourself."

Take a look at the conservative pundits on the television if this posting hasn't convinced you of this subtle shift in strategy. I've particularly noticed it with people like Tucker Carlson, Joe Scarborough, and Chris Matthews. While many Democrats are enjoying the gloom and doom being discussed on these programs, I contend it is being spun as part of this shifting strategy. Carlson is particularly skilled in this regard. On the surface, it appears that these pundits are piling on to bury the Republicans but if you watch and listen carefully you will notice that conversations about GOP blunders typically end with remarks that force viewers to consider the alternative...and it is usually offered as an off color aspersion that serves to portray the Democrats to be worse by comparison.

As I unravel this shifting strategy, I would argue that the goal is to quickly get voters to the point at which they consider the premise behind the idiom of "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't". Further, the Rove playbook seeks to spin both sides of that equation by attempting to portray the GOP as victim and the Democrats as the all too frightening villain. Democrats need to be careful or they will once again suffer defeat at the hands of carefully orchestrated doubt and fear.

Assuming that the GOP is on the defensive is a mistake. What looks like retreat is actually a well crafted strategy in the making. If they can couple the appearance of capitulation (intended to anesthetize enough Democrats into overconfidence such that fewer voters turnout and lure Democratic candidates into sitting back and allowing the GOP to define the "devil") with their superior get out the vote effort and a financial advantage that will allow them one last minute flurry of advertising designed to heighten fear and raise doubt, they have the potential to steal victory from the throes of defeat.

Daniel DiRito | October 14, 2006 | 10:20 AM
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1 On October 15, 2006 at 2:51 PM, Jimi wrote —


How long can one Party expect to stay in power when their claim to it is fear? I respect your analysis, but haven't true conservatives been ill served by this Administration?

Actions speak louder than words and conservatives have had no action on: fiscal responsibility, shrinking government, balanced budgets or less intervention by government into citizens lives.

Eventually even the duped recognize a magician who practices the same trick over and over. I am hoping as a country we have reached this point.

If not, well then, we deserve what we get, heh.

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