“Wolf! Wolf! The wolf is chasing the sheep!”

Three provisions of the Patriot Act will expire at the end of this year.  The three provisions deal with the government’s ability to acquire business records, the ability to obtain roving wiretaps, and the ability to track a suspected terrorist that has no ties to a government or group (the lone-wolf provision).

The administration has said it would like to keep all of these provisions, with some modification to limit the abuses on civil liberties.  Anytime the Patriot Act is on the public radar, you can expect fireworks.  I feel pretty safe in predicting that this time will be no different.

Currently, the President is considering sending more troops to Afghanistan.  Top military personnel are saying that without more troops America could lose the war.  Some Democrats are saying they will not support such a surge and the media is all over the phrase “lose the war.”  This presents the Republicans with an opportunity to engage the President in a real discussion regarding foreign policy.  Will that happen?  No.

The Republican party will use the potential troop surge and the Patriot Act provisions as another chance to tell voters why they cannot trust President Obama and why they should be fearful of his policy choices.  The Republican attack will follow a pretty standard format:

“If the President doesn’t send more troops then he doesn’t understand how dire the situation is in Afghanistan.  If he lets the Afghanistan war end in failure, America will be less safe.  The terrorists win.” 

It is then a quick step to the Patriot Act:

“If he doesn’t support reaffirming the Patriot Act then he doesn’t understand how to fight the war on terror.  If he compromises on the roving wiretap and lone-wolf provisions, America will be less safe.  The terrorists win.” 

Obama means no security, more terror attacks, and death.

What is interesting about this line of political attack is that it doesn’t fit with the current Republican attack on healthcare.  Republicans want America to fear a government takeover of healthcare, but not fear a government with the power to wiretap and search records of anyone without court approval.  Fear big government sometimes, but not all the time.  Fear healthcare, fear death panels, fear a speech to students, fear terrorists, fear Obama…just fear. 

This might work to fire up the base of the Republican party, but it doesn’t work as a winning election strategy.  While polls show the president’s numbers slipping, the same polls do not show a great move of moderate and independent voters toward the Republican party.  Could there be a reasonable and responsible debate about the provisions in question?  Absolutely.  There are reasons to think that the lone-wolf provision may be useful in tracking a suspect with no ties to a government or suspected group.  But real policy discussions mean you might have to compromise and admit that the other side has a valid point.  And we wouldn’t want that, now would we?

Fear can work for a little while as a political tool.  It was used effectively to help pass the Defense of Marriage Act, for example.  Fear was used to lead us to war in Iraq.  And it will be used again with Afghanistan and the Patriot Act provisions.

But when everything people are told to fear doesn’t happen, questions will be asked about the validity of anything that is said.  The Republican party continues to cry, “Wolf,” and yet children were not indoctrinated and death panels do not exist.  What will happen to these same Republicans if a legitimate policy concern is raised?  Just like the villagers who stopped running when they heard the boy scream, voters may do the same thing to the Republicans.  And if I was a Republican candidate, that would make me very fearful.



2 Responses

  1. In a world where civil discourse is drying up, the desperate appeal to emotions is staggering. And this from the party that, in Karl Rove’s words eight years ago, was on the verge of driving the Democrats into oblivion.
    By the way, your’re NOT a Republican?

  2. […] the fear mongering begin! In Congress, Policy, Politics on October 5, 2009 at 4:52 pm In a recent post, Brad suggested that the politics of fear would figure heavily in discussions related to PATRIOT […]

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