by Rob Grace
The 2008 election, mostly about constructing and destroying personality myths (like all other US presidential campaigns), will also be a vicious battle of the Iraq War vs. the War on Terror.
A look at our past wartime transfers of power may be illuminating. One lesson of 1952, our first wartime party realignment, is to place the war in the context of a larger, winnable war. The Republicans’ K1C2 strategy (Korea/Corruption/Communism) emphasized Democratic weakness in the broader war against the threat of communism. The defeat of the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War (commonly known as the fall of China to communism) worked in the Republicans favor as they painted the Democrats as “soft on communism.” Nixon, the vice-presidential attack-dog candidate, claimed the communists wanted a Democratic victory. He dubbed Democrat presidential hopeful Adlai Stevenson “Adlai the Appeaser,” claiming Stevenson received a “PhD from Dean Acheson’s College of Cowardly Communist Containment,” and asked “Can such a man be trusted to lead our crusade against communism?”
The 1968 election, the US’s second and last wartime transfer of power, is a much more complex example. Nixon, this time the above-the-fray presidential candidate, cast Spiro Agnew as his vice-presidential attack-dog candidate (the role Nixon played for Eisenhower in 1952). However, when Agnew attacked Hubert Humphrey, calling him “squishy soft on communism,” he received criticism from both sides of the aisle and apologized. The 1952 tactic couldn’t be successfully employed. The Nixon campaign’s vague “law order” slogan became the overall winnable issue on which they campaigned. Though “law and order” encompassed protest riots, it didn’t necessarily include the war, serving mostly to propagate Nixon’s “Tough and Strong” personality myth. At times both candidates claimed to have quicker, more efficient ways to win the peace, so not many lessons of successful propaganda use are directly applicable to our current campaign.
If the Bush administration takes steps for even partial de-escalation, or if Congress should succeed in de-funding, we could find ourselves in a complex 1968-esque scenario. Otherwise, the 1952 precedent bodes well for the Republicans, who have dibs on the rhetorical devices that paint them as more able to successfully wage the larger war. Hence, in the past weeks, we’ve seen Giuliani criticize Democrats for not mentioning Islamic Fundamentalist Terrorism in their debate, and Edwards call for an end to the term “War on Terror.” Edwards’ intent is obvious: to rhetorically dismantle the larger issue on which the Republicans hope to win. However, he will not succeed. Despite his true statement that the phrase has “created a frame that is inaccurate,” it’s too late to revise the terminology. Such a feat could only be achieved if it were replaced by an ironclad rhetorical device repeatedly drilled into the minds of Americans until it becomes accepted into the lexicon. The Republicans will not allow this to occur, knowing that the War on Terror is their wining issue.
Recent polling data justifies Republican optimism. The Pew Research Center poll completed earlier this year shows 54% saying that the US government effort to reduce the threat of terrorism is going very or fairly well. Last week’s USA Today poll gives Bush a 47% approval rating on his handling of terrorism, up two points from March. All polls that I know of from last month show enough “unsures” to keep the issue in play.
With approval of Bush’s handling of Iraq hovering in the twenties (sometimes low thirties) and his overall approval rating in the thirties, Democrats may believe they can do as Reagan did in 1980, and ask:
Is America as respected as it was? Do you feel that our security is safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago? If you answer all these questions yes, why then I think your choice is very obvious as to who you’ll vote for. If you don’t agree, if you don’t think that this course that we’ve been on for the last four years is what you would like to see us follow for the next four, then I could suggest another choice that you have.
However, if 1952 is any indication, Republican success depends on emphasis of the larger war. Democratic success depends on construction of some concrete framework within which to place the Iraq failure.