Has there ever been a presidential campaign like this one?
That question has been posed many times in recent months.
The short answer is no.
There are, however, previous campaigns with characteristics in common with the current race.
One that draws comparisons is the 1964 Johnson-Goldwater contest.
The most obvious point of comparison involves Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate, branded as an extremist, particularly when it came to foreign policy/national security. (Indeed he proclaimed, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.) He was pictured as someone who couldn't be trusted with the nuclear button. That portrayal of Goldwater was dramatically presented in a famous television advertisement by the Lyndon Johnson campaign, the legendary "Daisy spot."
The TV spot showed a little girl plucking petals from a daisy while an ominous countdown set the stage for a nuclear explosion. The voice of President Johnson was then heard: "These are the stakes -- to make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must love each other, or we must die." The message, of course, was that Goldwater was trigger-happy and might lead the nation into nuclear war.
Donald Trump's blustering bellicosity has brought comparisons to Goldwater, with opponents questioning whether he could be trusted with the nation's nuclear arsenal.
Johnson won an easy victory in 1964, a campaign I covered as a young reporter, and which never seemed in doubt. And although the Daisy spot has taken on mythical proportions, LBJ almost certainly would have won handily regardless of that ad. But the significance of the ad (which was only shown one time) was that it helped solidify the fear factor in presidential politics. Ironically, of course, it was Johnson who dramatically escalated the U.S. role in Vietnam.
We can point to many examples in which fear has figured prominently in campaign strategy. The Goldwater campaign had its own TV ad, a 27-minute "documentary" that associated Johnson and Democrats with social chaos. Just four years after the Johnson-Goldwater race, Richard Nixon, running at a particularly chaotic time, with protests over Vietnam, civil rights, along with assassinations and urban riots, presented himself as the "law-and-order" candidate, stirring and appealing to broad anxiety among the "silent majority" over crime and disorder.
Similar themes were evident in 1988 and once again a television ad, referred to as the Willie Horton spot, symbolized and stimulated public fear about crime and disorder. The George H.W. Bush campaign and associated groups sponsored the ads that featured Horton, a convicted murderer, who had been released on a weekend furlough program, a program supported by Bush's opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Horton escaped and engaged in further violent crime. Some viewed the ad as having racial overtones. Comparisons have been seen in some of this year's campaign, including the primaries, in the focus on the threat purportedly posed by Muslims or Latin America immigrants.
Trump has fashioned himself as a law-and-order candidate and emphasized what he sees as the threat of immigrants. He once said Mexicans coming to the U.S. are "in many cases criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc."
Both major candidates have labeled their opponent as trigger happy, with Trump calling Clinton "Trigger-Happy Hillary," pointing to her Senate vote to authorize President George Bush to go to war in Iraq and her somewhat hawkish reputation.
Trump claims he always opposed that war though that's not what the record shows. He cites an "'04 Esquire article," in which he stated his opposition, but that was 16 months after the invasion began in 2003.
A Clinton TV ad pictures Trump as reckless in military matters, including speaking at a rally saying, "I'm really good at war, I love war in a certain way." In a reprise of Daisy, the ad shows a mushroom cloud with Trump saying "including the nukes" while the screen shows nuclear devastation.
Sadly, the fear factor, sometimes based on fictionalized or exaggerated concerns, has increasingly become a key campaign emphasis. And sometimes those campaign emphases aren't borne out. In 1968 Nixon had a "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam, which has yet to be unveiled -- the war ended in 1975, after Nixon has left office. Now, Trump says he has a secret plan to defeat ISIS.
Candidate positions on issues related to national security need scrutiny, but we must get beyond secret plans, scare tactics, straw men and innuendo that have become standard campaign features. On the other hand, in the current campaign we've heard little serious discussion about the national debt, for example. Yet, the debt continues to pile up and some believe is a threat we should really be concerned about, a danger to our long-term economic security.
Commentary on 09/14/2016
Print Headline: The fear factor