You’re a manufacturer of automotive tires. You want to sell as many as possible. So you stick a baby atop a stack of tires in a TV ad, subtly suggesting to viewers that if they don’t buy your tires, the baby will get whacked. That’s the fear card.
You own an insurance company. You want to sell as many policies as possible. You do ads on TV that not so subtly tell viewers that without your company’s insurance coverage, they will be bankrupt, bereft of health â€” or dead. That, too, is the fear card.
Selling goods and services through the device of fear is standard fare in advertising. That’s true in politics as well. Remember that famous Michael Douglas speech in “The American President” about his opponent?
And whatever your particular problem is, friend, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: Making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it.
In at-last-he’s-a-presidential-candidate Fred Thompson’s first full television interview on Sept. 7, he pulled out the fear card, saying, in effect, “We should be afraid, and it’s the fault of dissenters.”
If you’re politically committed against this war and to do something to further harm the president, the way the Democrats seem to be in Congress, then anything [in the Petraeus Report] that’s a mixed message is going to be seized upon in a negative way. If we look weak and divided in this country, we’re going to pay a heavy price for it in the future. We’re living in the era of the suitcase bomb. And they’re not going to go away. They’re here now, they’re armed and dangerous, and they’re trying to get weapons of mass destruction.
In the uncritical Fox News interview, Sen. Thompson equates any dissent of the citizenry toward either the Iraq War or President Bush’s policies with the perception of the United States as “weak and divided.” That position is preposterous, falsely commingling correlation with causation.
Age or political ambition or both, apparently, have undone his earlier philosophy about the role of dissent in American political life. Sen. Thompson is a lawyer. He should understand the Constitution and the historical importance attached to dissent in the preservation of democracy.
He served as Senate Watergate Committee’s chief minority counsel in 1973 and 1974, in a chapter of American history written primarily because the citizenry chose to protest the policies of two arrogant presidents. Far from causing a constitutional crisis, dissenters resolved such a crisis created by President Johnson’s hubris and President Nixon’s perfidy.
Sen. Thompson is certainly right that today is a “different” time â€” but the role of dissent by citizens is written into the Constitution and transcends political and historical eras. He has begun his campaign by arguing that dissent â€” and not incompetence or cowardice on the part of Republican and Democratic leaders â€” is at the root of the nation’s problems of perception at home and abroad.
That’s not a credible argument, and no one should swallow it.
Now couple Sen. Thompson’s use of the fear card with extraordinarily vague wording. Examine this Sept. 7 interview conducted by CNN’s John King on Sept. Thompson’s campaign bus:
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, national security dominated our conversation as the bus rolled across the Iowa countryside. Senator Thompson most robust, defending president Bush’s decision to topple the government of Saddam Hussein. He plays down the significance of the president’s failure to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON (R), TENNESSEE: I think Bin Laden is more symbolism than he is anything else. And I think he shows and demonstrates to people once again that we are in a global war.
Bin Laden being in the mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan is not as important as the fact there is probably al Qaeda operatives inside the United States of America. I think that the latest National Intelligence Estimate indicates they’re alive and strong and trying to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction.
Iraq is very important only part of a bigger global effort and it’s one that Osama Bin Laden and people like him are heading up and we, we surely need to catch him. And we surely need to deal with him. But if he disappeared tomorrow, we’d still have this problem. If Iraq disappeared tomorrow. We would still have this problem.
KING: But if he still at large and there are al Qaeda operatives in the United States we should be worried about are those who said Iraq was a diversion, that even if it was the right thing to do it should have waited until Osama Bin Laden was caught or at least al Qaeda was further damaged and decapitated, are they right?
THOMPSON: It is not an either/or situation. Some times you don’t have a choice. Saddam Hussein was on the cusp of having defeated the United Nations and the free world and the United States. He had certainly had weapons of mass destruction [and] had the capability of reviving his nuclear program.
In light of what Iran is doing with their nuclear program he certainly would have gotten back on the stick and gotten there again. [emphasis added]
It’s particularly sad that, because of self-imposed time constraints, CNN did not more closely question Sen. Thompson as he made these unsupported, vague claimsâ€” all with the underlying intent of making us “afraid” and suggesting that he and only he can lead us out of fear in these troubling times of “global terror.”
Sen. Thompson’s campaign-opening salvo leaves much to be desired. But he’s not alone: Other presidential candidates mirror his tendencies. This is what American political discourse has come to â€” candidates’ fear of speaking clearly, concisely and precisely about virtually any issue.