Subtle: Candidates Exploit Our Fears, But Not Too Baldly

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Winter Patriot

There’s been some interesting fallout from Charlie Black’s assertion that a terrorist attack against America “would be a big advantage” for John McCain [photo], the candidate for whom Black strategizes.

Black’s frank admission set off alarm bells for those who believe it would be easy for such an attack to be made to happen (on purpose, as it were).

In addition to alarm bells, Black’s comment has stirred up some of the finest doublethink you’re likely to find (until the next time you read a mainstream “news” article about this subject, or anything else). I had fun watching Michael Cooper tie himself up in knots in the New York Times:

In Balancing Act on National Security, a Stumble

It was the journalist Michael Kinsley who changed Washington’s understanding of gaffes with his observation that a gaffe occurs not when someone lies, but when they say what they really think.

All the remarkable moments in modern politics have come when somebody accidentally told the truth. This tells us something about how often they lie.

And more than a few politicians and pundits were put in mind of the classic Kinsleyian gaffe this week after Charlie Black, a senior adviser to Senator John McCain, was quoted in a magazine interview saying that another terrorist attack in the United States would “be a big advantage” for Mr. McCain in the upcoming election.

Whether such an attack would work in favor of McCain is debatable; there are several possibilities and Michael Cooper can’t even list them (if he wants to keep his job). But there can’t be any question that it’s dangerous when a senior adviser to a presidential candidate thinks a terrorist attack would help his candidate.

In recent years we’ve been treated to barrage of nonsense — embodied in phrases like “the criminalization of politics” — sanctifying the notion that politicians are above the law, or that politics is war and therefore all’s fair.

So to have a major politician whose strategic adviser thinks a terrorist attack would be a big advantage … is not only very dangerous … but it’s far too honest a thing to say, isn’t it?

McCain thinks so.

Mr. McCain immediately disavowed the remark on Monday, saying: “I cannot imagine why he would say it. It’s not true.” And Mr. Black quickly announced that he “deeply” regretted the remark. But on some level Mr. Black’s assertion was the logical extension — if somewhat tackily and impoliticly expressed — of the McCain campaign’s premise that Mr. McCain is best suited to keep the nation safe from terror.

And this is exactly the point. No matter what happens, whether there’s a terrorist attack or not [or two], both candidates will strive to portray themselves as best able to fight terrorists.

Making that case, of course, can be a balancing act, the challenge being how to position Mr. McCain as the candidate who will keep people safe without seeming to be baldly exploiting people’s fears — a balance that has not always been struck in recent political campaigns.

The problem, as you can see Michael Cooper struggling not to spell out, is how to keep exploiting people’s fears without seeming to do so baldly.

The Obama campaign struck back hard, questioning the premise that the Republicans who favored invading Iraq have expertise in fighting terrorism and labeling Mr. Black’s remark as part of a “cynical and divisive brand of politics.”

The really interesting question — the question that’s never asked — is whether the Republicans are more interested in fighting terrorism or fomenting it. But of course it would be cynical and divisive to ask it, so don’t expect to hear it from Obama anytime soon.

Instead, through his chosen mouthpiece, he takes a different tack:

“The fact that John McCain’s top adviser says that a terrorist attack on American soil would be a ‘big advantage’ for their political campaign is a complete disgrace and is exactly the kind of politics that needs to change,” Bill Burton, a spokesman for Senator Barack Obama, said in a statement. “Barack Obama will turn the page on these failed policies and this cynical and divisive brand of politics so that we can unite this nation around a common purpose to finish the fight against al Qaeda.”

Well, of course, saying a terrorist attack would be good for your candidate is cynical and divisive. But it’s not nearly as cynical and divisive as staging one. And that’s a balance that hasn’t always been struck, either.

On the other hand, Obama says he wants “to finish the fight against al Qaeda”, and that’s some pretty macho talk, but it’s a big problem too, because so far he hasn’t shown any understanding — or even any curiosity — about what al Qaeda is … or isn’t!

And — not to put too bald a point on it — there are only two things that that could “unite this nation around a common purpose to finish the fight against al Qaeda”.

One of them, of course, would be a large-scale “terrorist” attack. But rather than helping McCain or Obama, such an attack may merely serve as a pretext for the cancellation of the election. So it would be a risky card to play, even for an old shark like Charlie Black.

There’s another way in which a sharp and honest president could possibly “unite” the nation and “finish” the war against al Qaeda, but it definitely won’t happen, because it involves serious education.

I’m referring, of course, to a large-scale campaign to inform the American public about exactly what al Qaeda is, who created it, who sponsors it, and whose policy aims it serves.

In other words, a progressive and honest president might require his fellow citizens to take a break from their standard television fare and watch — no! study! — a BBC documentary called “The Power of Nightmares”. Here’s an excerpt:

http://winterpatriot.blogspot.com/

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