HARD AS IT IS to imagine now, there was a time in the not-so-distant past when the GOP was considered to be the "party of ideas." As the 2006 campaign draws to a merciful close, the only idea national Republicans seem to have left is that, when in doubt, accuse Democrats of being a bunch of terrorist-loving wimps. But as the boy who cried wolf learned the hard way, fear-mongering has its diminishing returns.
The strain of escalating demonization is starting to show. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a former GOP wunderkind now scratching for his political life, absurdly accused his opponent, Bob Casey Jr., this week of "aiding and abetting terrorism and genocide." This after airing a commercial in which Casey was shown next to Kim Jong Il and a mushroom cloud. An ad titled "The Stakes," produced by the Republican National Committee, features Osama bin Laden and his minions threatening more attacks.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) last week characterized Democrats' Iraq strategy as "waving the white flag and surrendering." This just weeks after the spectacularly opportunistic retiring majority leader (who can forget the good doctor's "I've seen the video" second-guessing of Terri Schiavo's diagnosis?) concluded that the war in Afghanistan can't be won militarily.
The Republican message reeks of desperation; the party seems spent. That's the nature of the political cycle in Washington — parties eventually overreach after governing uncontested for a time, as their loyalists' desire to stay in power outlasts their enthusiasm for their own ideas. The only reason this election is a cliffhanger is the lack of inspired thinking by Democratic opposition leaders.
President Bush, meanwhile, is also getting into the fear-mongering. "The Democrat approach," he said this week on the stump in Georgia, "comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses. And that's what's at stake in this election."
This is why much of the world considers our president a caricature figure — because on occasion he acts like one. It is expected and appropriate for parties to flesh out their differences on national security issues, but it should be a debate about means, not ends.
Part of the Republican playbook consists once again of conveniently confusing the war in Iraq with the post-9/11 war on terror. The disingenuous formulation remains: Criticize the war in Iraq and you're a Bin Laden sympathizer. Voters seem to be growing tired of such manipulation. Who knows, they may even notice that Al Qaeda's leader, in fact, has not been captured — except in the video montages of Republican campaign ads.