By John Russonello
The recent Congressional approval of President Bush's anti-terrorism legislation is the latest example of the power of fear. In this case, it was not the fear of Islamic fundamentalists that motivated many Democratic Senators and Representatives to vote to give President Bush extraordinary powers. Instead, it was the fear of Republican campaign operatives who paralyze Democratic lawmakers with the words, “the Senator is weak on terrorism.”
The advice that Washington wise men give to Democratic incumbents is even if you think it is wrong, vote for the President's anti-terrorism bill or else the Republicans will do to you what they did to Max Cleland. Decorated Vietnam War hero Max Cleland lost his seat in the U.S. Senate election in 2002 when a Georgia lawyer named Saxbe Chamblis ran ads saying Cleland was soft on fighting terrorism.
Although it was four years ago, the shadow of Chamblis' ads still loomed large over the 12 Democratic Senators and 32 House Democrats, including two running for Senate, who most recently voted to give the President the authority to imprison people indefinitely and torture them based only on his suspicions rather than on evidence. The legislation violates the Constitution and the basis of our laws going back to the Magna Carta.
If members of the opposition party refuse to object when the President disobeys the Constitution and repudiates America's long held values, how can they call themselves the opposition?
Their fear of the President and his ad men is misplaced. In our survey and focus group work across the country in recent months, we have heard Americans of every political stripe — reds and blues and shades of both — respond strongly to a message that the President should obey the law, and that torture, indefinite detention, and withholding evidence from detainees are not part of the America they believe in. This is not who we are, they tell us, and if we give up our values, the terrorists win.
We hear the same sentiments in four statewide polls that Belden Russonello Strategists (BRS) conducted last month for the ACLU in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Mexico, and Ohio. Large majorities of voters in each state would prefer Congressional candidates who oppose the President's policies on torture, extraordinary rendition, holding detainees at Guantanamo, and military tribunals. For example, 73% of voters in both Pennsylvania and New Mexico prefer a Congressional candidate who opposes “allowing government agents to capture people in foreign countries and secretly fly them to other countries, and then torture them to gather information about terrorism.” Candidates who would oppose such practices by our government would be preferred by 71% of Ohio voters and 72% of Connecticut voters, according to the BRS surveys.
One wonders why Democrats continue to be afraid of a President who holds a 42% approval rating and who 58% of Americans believe “intentionally misled” the country on why we went to war in Iraq (Gallup, September '06).
When Democratic candidates fail to articulate the public's anxieties with the Bush Administration's policies, voters are left to wonder: Why is my view not being voiced? Some even begin to think: Maybe the President is right?
For every Max Cleland, there are several other examples of Democratic candidates who have opposed the President and succeeded. All seven Senate candidates running for reelection in 2004 and who openly opposed the war in Iraq won their races — at a time when the Washington wise men counseled Democrats to go along with the war.
Unfortunately, this lesson has gone unlearned by most of Washington. When the Democratic party's positions on issue after issue — the war in Iraq, terrorism, taxes, education — are based primarily on fear of the opponent, it is the fault of the incumbency class in Washington. These are the politicians and consultants who share an interest in avoiding distinctions on issues in order to get reelected and re-hired with the least amount of effort.
Unless Democrats overcome their fears, and start leading instead of following three steps behind, they may win reelection but they will continue to lose the confidence of the American people in their ability to govern.
John Russonello is a partner in the public opinion research and strategic communications firm Belden Russonello Strategists in Washington.