Fear throws its hat into the ring for 2016 race

November 23, 2015
Supporters of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump react as a protestor interrupts a campaign rally in Worcester, Massachusetts November 18, 2015.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTS7UQ4

Supporters of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump react as a protestor interrupts a campaign rally in Worcester, Massachusetts November 18, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Fear is back. It looks like 2004 all over again.

In 2004, the terrorism issue spelled doom for Democrats. It was the first presidential election after 9/11. Democrat John Kerry was challenging President George W. Bush’s re-election.

Republicans turned the election into a referendum on terrorism. “We are not yet safe,” Vice President Dick Cheney declared. “Threats are still out there. The terrorists are still plotting and planning, trying to find ways to attack the United States.” Democrats accused Republicans of exploiting fear. “A true leader inspires hope and vanquishes fear,” Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said. “This administration does neither. Instead, it brings fear.”

Last week, President Barack Obama charged that Republicans “have been playing on fear in order to try to score political points or to advance their campaigns.” But the fear is real. More than 80 percent of Americans believe a major terrorist attack is likely to happen in the United States in the near future, according to a Nov. 20, ABCNews/Washington Post poll.

Usually during a crisis, a “rally around the flag” effect boosts a president’s standing with voters. Not this time. Fifty-four percent of Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of terrorism, the same poll showed. That’s the lowest rating on terrorism of his career.

French President Francois Hollande promised, “France will be merciless against the barbarians of death.” He said his country would fight “without a respite, without a truce… It is not a question of containing but of destroying” Islamic State. Americans wanted to hear that kind of resolve from their own president. Instead they heard it from a French socialist.

Going into the 2016 campaign, the terrorism issue once again presents a problem for Democrats. Polling by Reuters after the Paris attacks shows terrorism rated as the nation’s top issue, eclipsing the economy and jobs.

The Democratic nominee will have to run on Obama’s record. “Hillary Clinton can’t walk away from President Obama’s failing ISIS strategy because she helped craft it and even praised it,” a spokesman for the Republican National Committee said.

The biggest political problem Democrats face is one that didn’t come up in 2004: refugees. Obama called Republican opposition to admitting refugees “shameful” and “a betrayal of our values.” He mocked Republican critics, saying “They’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America as part of our tradition of compassion.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) response: “Better to be safe than to be sorry.” Americans oppose “the United States taking in refugees from the conflicts in Syria and other Mideast countries after screening them for security” by 54 to 43 percent in the ABCNews/Washington Post poll. Forty percent are “strongly opposed.”

Bush won in 2004. Former President Bill Clinton had warned his fellow Democrats, “Strong and wrong beats weak and right.” Nevertheless, there are reasons why it may be different in 2016.

One of them is Donald Trump. The latest Reuters poll of Republican voters nationwide shows Trump surging into the lead for the 2016 Republican nomination, with nearly 40 percent of the vote. If congressional Republicans are unable to block Obama’s plan to admit Syrian refugees, conservatives may erupt in fury at GOP leaders and rally to Trump’s support.

Even if Trump doesn’t win the Republican nomination, he is defining the Republican Party’s image for 2016. It’s not a good image. All the polls for the past month show a majority of Americans with an unfavorable opinion of Trump (the average is 55 percent unfavorable to 37 percent favorable).

There’s another reason why 2016 may be different. Republicans have declared a new culture war. Republican attacks on refugees are not just anti-terrorist. They are anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim.

The United States has changed in the past decade. In 2004, conservatives got anti-same sex marriage measures on the ballot in 11 states. The measures passed in every state, many by landslide margins. And they did exactly what they were intended to do. They brought conservative voters out to re-elect Bush.

Now a solid majority of Americans favors same sex marriage. Measures to legalize gay marriage passed in all four states where they were on the ballot in 2012.

Diversity has become a fact in the United States, but it’s meeting with resistance from many Republicans. Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) has argued that Obama’s refugee plan aims to counter low fertility rates of native-born Americans and “fill America up in a fashion that has kicked sideways . . . assimilation into the American dream, American civilization.”

Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), along with other Republican contenders, has criticized Hillary Clinton for refusing to condemn Islamic terrorism by name. “This is a clash of civilizations,” Rubio said. “There is no middle ground.” Governor John Kasich (R-Ohio) raised the idea of creating a new federal agency to promote “Judeo-Christian values.”

The refugee issue has become fodder in the ongoing culture war. These days, however, Republicans find themselves at a disadvantage on most cultural issues. The electorate is becoming better educated, less religious, more tolerant and much more diverse. Especially as the millennial generation arrives. Positioning themselves as a resistance movement against diversity and inclusion is not likely to do Republicans a lot of good.

After 9/11, Americans were united for exactly one year. It ended in September 2002 when President Bush began to roll out plans for the Iraq war. Then, it took a year for the country’s bitter divisions to resurface. After the Paris attacks, it took less than a week.

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