The fear factor is dominating the midterm election campaigns, as leaders of both major parties focus on issues that have a history of angering and dividing the voters. "These issues have proven value," says Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker. "The fact is that there is an arsenal of issues of high emotional content" that gives each party some formidable weapons to use against the opposition. Both the Republicans and the Democrats promise to make aggressive use of such tactics in this fall's campaigns. There is at least a kernel of truth in many of the charges, but the parties seem to be doing their best to caricature their opponents in an effort to scare as many voters as possible.
Most recently, the Democrats have resurrected the question of protecting Social Security, which has worked against the Republicans since Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt invented the government-run retirement system in the 1930s. When President George W. Bush suggested a partial privatization of Social Security a few years ago, the Democrats rallied older voters by arguing that retirees would lose benefits. The resulting backlash killed the Bush proposal on Capitol Hill.
Now, prominent Democrats, including President Obama and party chairman Tim Kaine, are trying to bludgeon the GOP with the issue again. In his radio and Internet address on August 14, Obama said the Republicans are "pushing to make privatizing Social Security a key part of their legislative agenda if they win a majority in Congress this fall." Obama recently told a town hall meeting in Columbus, Ohio, that only "fairly modest changes" are needed to save the system. "It will not be privatized as long as I'm president," he added.
The Social Security issue is directly linked to Democratic efforts to tie current Republican candidates to Bush's unpopular agenda. Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, says that as long as the Republicans fail to come up with new ideas and attempt to obstruct Obama's proposals, they are open to the charge that they want to restore Bush's policies. Obama told an audience in Milwaukee recently, "The worst thing we could do is to go back to the very same policies that created this mess in the first place." Arguing that Republicans want voters "to be afraid of the future," he added: "Don't give in to fear. Let's reach for hope."
The Republicans are using their own brand of scare tactics. Foremost is their charge that the Democrats are reckless spenders and big-government advocates who want to raise taxes, impose regulations, and meddle in society at every opportunity. Many GOP leaders, including House Minority Leader John Boehner and party chairman Michael Steele, have been making these claims.
On another matter, the Republicans argue that the Democrats and Obama aren't tough enough on illegal immigration. GOP leaders say the government's first priority must be to protect America's borders and prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country before any comprehensive immigration "reform" is enacted. This is an appealing stance for many white voters who are upset about the upsurge of illegal immigrants into their communities, but it could hurt Republicans over the long term by turning Latinos against the GOP.
Another Republican tactic is to accuse the Democrats of being weak on national security, an effective charge since the presidency of Jimmy Carter. This issue is manifesting itself in the furor over a plan to build a mosque and community center in lower Manhattan, near the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Republicans say Obama is naive and insensitive because he has endorsed the right of Muslims to build this project (although he made a distinction between a freedom-of-religion right to build it and whether the project's backers should build it).
On this, public opinion seems solidly against Obama. Thirty-seven percent of Americans disapprove of his mosque comments and only 20 percent approve, according to a Gallup poll. (Forty percent said they didn't know enough to respond.) But many Republicans are outraged, and the mosque appears to be another issue that is energizing GOP voters. Some Democrats are also starting to distance themselves from Obama's position, which suggests that opposition to the mosque is spreading beyond the GOP. One is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is in a tough re-election race in Nevada.
All this will make for a negative endgame to the fall campaigns, which is probably the last thing that voters want.