NEW YORK -- In the last few weeks, John Kerry has precipitated the Mary Cheney episode, suggested Republicans will try to suppress the black vote and cut Social Security benefits, and repeated leftist canards about a military draft.
All the while he accuses President Bush of trying to divide the country by frightening people. And he's not the only one.
"There is a real danger that the first presidential election after Sept. 11 will be conducted in an atmosphere of fear," wrote Walter Shapiro in USA Today last week. The New York Times editorial page -- still giddy from the hometown Yankees' defeat at the hands of the partially Times-owned Red Sox -- sobered up enough to fret that "the Bush campaign grows ever more irresponsible in its effort to scare Americans into believing that voting for John Kerry will bring on another terrorist attack."
What the Times and others claim to oppose is the use of fear, but they have no problem when fear is employed by their own favored candidates. And they shouldn't. Fear is a legitimate emotion to arouse in a political campaign, but the two candidates are using it very differently.
When President Bush summons fear, he does so in reference to our enemies; on a secondary level, the fear refers to Senator Kerry's lack of seriousness about the threat. The fear that Senator Kerry evokes, on the other hand, refers to President Bush. Listening to Kerry, you would think that Bush attacked us, not Islamic terrorists.
Kerry told the Des Moines Register that a Bush second term carries "great potential of a draft," but the unfortunate truth is that the only draft idea in Washington was put forth by the Democratic Party and rejected overwhelmingly. He continues to charge that Bush will cut Social Security benefit levels, an accusation based on a study by a Chicago Business School professor that did not even address that issue.
And Kerry has escalated his rhetoric to black audiences about voter intimidation and disenfranchisement. There has never been any corroborating evidence of the allegations of black voter intimidation or foul play in Florida in 2000, and the rate of black spoiled ballots can be readily explained if one is willing to dispense with conspiracy theories.
Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney told an Ohio audience last week that "The biggest threat we face now as a nation is the possibility of terrorists ending up in the middle of one of our cities with deadlier weapons than have ever before been used against us -- biological agents or a nuclear weapon or a chemical weapon of some kind…"
Cheney was recalling the morning of September 11, 2001, and asking his audience to determine which candidate is more likely to prevent it happening again. There couldn't be a more legitimate question to put to an electorate.
That's another important distinction between the way the two parties are using fear -- the Republicans are referring to events that actually happened, as opposed to fantasies and urban legends.
The Kerry campaign's reaction to Cheney's speech was typical -- they changed the subject. First, they trotted out their candidate's war service. "He has the audacity to question whether a decorated combat veteran who has bled on the battlefield is tough and aggressive enough to keep America safe," huffed Mark Kitchens, Kerry campaign national security spokesman. Give it a rest, please.
Kitchens went on to say that Cheney "wants to scare Americans about a possible nuclear 9/11 while the Bush administration has been on the sidelines while the nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran…have increased." That's a more substantive criticism than waving the bloody shirt, and Bush's record on Iran is certainly open to criticism. He's less culpable on North Korea, given the willfully naïve Agreed Framework he inherited, which was negotiated by his predecessor with the help of the ever-accommodating Jimmy Carter. Kerry loved that agreement, even after it was wantonly violated; in the debates, he seemed to suggest that he would like nothing better than to craft a sequel.
It's difficult to see where the administration is being irresponsible in discussing the danger of domestic terror, especially when they are running against a man who speaks about relegating terrorism to a "nuisance," similar to benign infractions like prostitution and, uh…mafia hits. It isn't the nuisance of terrorism that endangers us, Kerry's thinking goes, but Bush's insistence on treating it as something more than a nuisance.
What's really bothering the Times and other Bush critics is that the president's hammering away at the security theme is doing Kerry real damage. Therefore, it must be irresponsible.
"It isn't bragging if you can back it up," Muhammad Ali used to say. And it isn't fear-mongering if the fear is based on existing threats, past occurrences, and the reckless disregard of the threat shown by John Kerry.
Eight days to go, Mr. President. Let fear ring throughout the land.
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