Bush and the Fear Factor

This op-ed originally appeared in the Hartford Courant, November 7, 2004.

by Jack M. Balkin

The election of 2000 is finally over. George W. Bush has won his majority.

The president will tell you that his is a majority of faith: faith in his leadership, faith in his policies and faith in his values. In fact, it is a majority forged from fear: fear of terrorism, fear of uncertainty and, above all, fear of homosexuals.

The president’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, made no secret about his strategy. To win re-election, Bush would have to stoke up his base of religious conservatives and get them so excited and angry that they would turn out in huge numbers. Referendums on same-sex marriage in 11 states - including swing states like Ohio - helped push them to the polls.

For decades, Republicans used coded appeals to race to win voters. Richard Nixon spoke about “law and order,” Ronald Reagan bashed “welfare queens” and supporters of President Bush’s father raised the specter of Willie Horton. In 2004, the Republican Party has finally gotten beyond race baiting. “Moral values” is the new code. It does not mean morality, for burdening the poor to pamper the rich is hardly moral. It means opposition to homosexuality and secularism. The new slogan of the Republican faithful is simple: We’re here, we think you’re queer, and we can’t get used to it.

In four years, George W. Bush converted a huge surplus into an even huger deficit, pushed the United States into a quagmire in Iraq based on a false rationale, fractured alliances, exacerbated the problem of terrorism and presided over a sluggish economic recovery that produced a net loss of jobs for the first time since the Hoover administration. Yet Bush successfully diverted attention from his failures through a marvelous technique of manipulation: He repeatedly instilled fear and then insisted that only he could keep us safe. He fanned the flames of intolerance and moral panic and then claimed that only he could defend the nation’s values.

Bush’s message about moral values in domestic politics bears an eerie resemblance to his message about terrorism in foreign policy: It’s us against them. We have values. Our opponents don’t. We are doing God’s work. They oppose morality and the family. Just as we don’t negotiate with evildoers around the globe, we will not compromise with those who lack moral values at home. They can either get with the program or get stuffed. Just as Fox News once claimed that it owned the words “fair and balanced,” Bush claimed ownership of words like “patriotism,” “strength,” “security” and “family.”

Abraham Lincoln once said that you can’t fool all the people all the time. But Bush and Rove realized they didn’t have to. Their goal was to split the country almost in half and seize the slightly larger piece. The strategy worked brilliantly. We now live in a bitterly divided nation, with each side unable to understand the other, and with one party controlling all the levers of power. With new judicial appointments and new partisan gerrymanders like that in Texas, the Republicans hope to entrench themselves into the distant future. All the Republicans have to do is hold on to that 51 percent and keep them devoted, distrustful of the other side, afraid and angry.

At some point, however, the piper must be paid. The problems the administration papered over during the past year have only grown worse. Huge tax giveaways have produced only a tepid recovery and sent deficits soaring. The situation in Iraq is slipping out of control. Serious foreign policy crises in North Korea and Iran await. Scandals are brewing beneath the surface: about Halliburton, about the misuse of intelligence before the Iraq war and about prisoner abuse and torture.

The president cannot keep blaming everything on Sept. 11 and activist judges in Massachusetts. He and his party will have to govern - tackle the hard issues, face the unpleasant choices. In the past four years, Bush has created an enormous fiscal and foreign policy mess, and the only silver lining in the cloud of his re-election is that he will have to clean it up himself. For the first time in his long, privileged life, George W. Bush will have to take responsibility for his own actions.

In the meantime, however, the president has emerged triumphant. True, he has bungled the war and mismanaged our economy. He has fostered ill will both around the world and within his own land. He has weakened the country’s security and poisoned the wells of its democracy. But he won a great victory, and no one can deny it to him. The sign on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln says it all: “Mission Accomplished.”

We all know how that one turned out.

Jack M. Balkin is Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School.