It is unclear at the moment whether the San Bernardino massacre will turn out to be the latest act of an international terrorist network, or just a workplace revenge incident with some exotic features. But given the proximity of the Paris shootings, it’s probably time to take seriously the efforts of Republican pols and pundits to make sure the upcoming 2016 elections are “about” national security generally and terrorism specifically.
The obvious precedent for a fear-based Republican general-election campaign is the period between 9/11 and the November 2004 reelection of George W. Bush. In 2002, Republicans pulled off the rare feat of making midterm gains despite controlling the White House. Though the failure of the exit poll system made accurate analysis of what happened difficult, there was quite a bit of talk between then and the ensuring election about the crucial effect of so-called “security moms” — married women who might normally have voted Democratic but who trusted Republicans to do a better job of protecting the country from terrorists. More clearly, in 2004, for all the doubts about George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, he benefited from this common-sense syllogism: (a) Some Muslims attacked the homeland and killed a lot of Americans; (b) Bush attacked Muslims in their homelands and killed a whole lot more of them; (c) Muslims didn’t attack the American homeland again. While national-security experts often mocked the “flypaper theory” that Bush was “pinning down” jihadists overseas so they couldn’t attack America, it made rough sense to a lot of voters.
Could the same thing happen in 2016? The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart expressed this fear among Democrats back in September of 2014, when ISIS was first terrifying Americans with videos of beheadings.
Although today’s terrorism scare doesn’t rival the aftermath of 9/11, the parallels to 2002 are striking nonetheless. As a result of the ISIS beheadings, the percentage of Americans “very worried” about terrorism has just hit a seven-year high. Once again, women are more afraid than men. According to a CNN poll last week, women are 18 points more likely to say they are “very” or “somewhat” worried that someone in their family will be the victim of terrorism. According to Pew, they are six points more likely to call terrorism “very important” to their vote this fall. In a recent piece about “Walmart moms” who participated in focus groups in Des Moines and Little Rock, my colleague Molly Ball noticed the trend: “The women in both groups expressed pervasive worry about violence .… This emphasis on security was a departure from previous groups, many of which I’ve covered in the past few years, in which economic anxiety has overwhelmingly dominated.”
If that was true more than a year ago, it’s truer now. The current tendency of GOP presidential candidates to talk tough on terrorism and blame Barack Obama for inviting attacks on the U.S. and its allies by his “weakness” and “political correctness” shows they and their consultants believe it’s a rich political vein in both the nomination contest and perhaps the general election. A campaign of fear also nicely meshes with the earlier party-wide decision to challenge Hillary Clinton’s robust foreign-policy and national-security credentials via a relentless inquisition into the Benghazi incident, supplemented by claims she leaked vital classified information through her personal email account while secretary of State. What better way to undermine Clinton’s presumed gender appeal as the First Woman to Be President than to reanimate the “security mom” phenomenon!
There are problems, however, with a terrorism-focused GOP presidential effort. Most obviously, none of the candidates can boast, as Bush did in 2004, of “keeping us safe.” And strong differences of opinion between the candidates over how to replace Obama’s policies will contribute to doubts about Republican credibility. To the extent that, say, Marco Rubio seems to be recapitulating the “flypaper” strategy for fighting terrorists by reinvading Iraq and taking clear sides in Syria, Ted Cruz is going to be very quick to accuse the Floridian of making the same mistakes that made Bush so unpopular. Other candidates (e.g., Trump and Carson) seem convinced that repealing civil liberties for terrorism suspects — including, of course, all Muslims — is the right way to go. Both libertarians and Establishment Republicans will have issues with that. So there simply isn’t anyone who is in a position to emulate George W. Bush’s brief but crucial emergence (bitterly hilarious as it is to remember) in the conservative commentariat as a world-historical colossus and strategeric genius, just prior to his reelection campaign.
So perhaps Republicans shouldn’t blindly race to exploit the current climate of fear. There is no guarantee that terrorists — or for that matter, disgruntled employees or white supremacists or men who want to keep women from obtaining birth control or having abortions — will steadily supply the raw materials in regularly timed atrocities. But perhaps the most immediate concern for the presidential candidates should be this: In any demagogic competition involving tough talk, can anyone ever match Donald Trump, the man who just yesterday blithely called for killing the wives and children of terrorists? Probably not. And giving Trump a new issue to dominate would be a truly fearsome gamble for the GOP.