In 1992, former president Bill Clinton famously made the claim “I feel your pain” during his campaign for president. Four years later, Bob Dole certainly never tried to feel anyone’s pain — he was a war hero who had felt a great deal of his own pain. But his combat wound was not a topic for exploitation on the campaign trail. The difference between these two politicians explicates the “bleeding-heart liberal” stereotype that for years Republicans used to attack Democrats. During the 1990s, conservatives claimed, with some accuracy, that Democrats were exploiting a politics of emotion instead of supporting a politics of rationality.
For example, a Republican would argue that a social safety net program such as welfare was based not on reason and results, but rather on a feeling of “white liberal guilt”; rich urbanites were driven to support such programs because seeing poor people made them feel bad about themselves. If liberals would only use their heads instead of their bleeding hearts, the argument went, they would realize that welfare programs were empirical failures and should be abandoned in their current form.
A few election cycles later, a remarkable about-face has occurred: the Republicans have discarded the politics of logic, and President Bush now appeals to the emotions of voters more strongly than Democrats could have ever dreamed.
Don’t think that today’s Republicans are targeting bleeding hearts in order to implement social welfare. Their appeal is deeper, to the gut level of fear that can easily override rational, clear-headed thinking. President Bush has conducted security policy since Sept. 11 with the goal of keeping the populace in a constant state of fear. If we are afraid, we will be unable to make rational choices at the voting booth, and we will do and believe whatever our leaders tell us to.
Bush’s 2000 campaign theme of “compassionate conservatism” was an obvious embrace of Clintonian emotionalism, an attempt to soften the edges of hard-right conservatism for more moderate voters. But now, with four years of governance behind him, Bush is once again utilizing strong emotional rhetoric in his campaign — except now it is because he cannot run on the issues, since his policies have resulted in a string of failures. He cannot run on the economy because no net jobs have been gained under his leadership. He cannot run on Iraq because his administration made numerous mistakes in managing the post-war situation, leading to an escalation in violence and American military casualties. The one thing he could possibly run on, the fact that (for whatever reason) terrorists have not struck the U.S. mainland since Sept. 11, would collapse if there is another attack before election day. With a record of abysmal failure that cannot be defended by relying on the facts, Bush has adopted two campaign strategies: tear down John Kerry so ruthlessly that he becomes an unpalatable alternative to Bush; and confuse voters with emotional language and imagery that will make them ignore their rational, negative reaction to the president’s unsuccessful policies.
This can be plainly observed in Dick Cheney’s recent comment that “It’s absolutely essential that 8 weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice. Because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we’ll get hit again, that we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.” Message: a vote for Kerry is a vote for the deaths of innocents. Again, by appealing to the basic emotion of fear, the administration preempts a clear-headed appraisal of Bush’s foreign policy.
When the administration began hinting in early 2002 that it wanted to invade Iraq, it was not pursuing this policy based on a public outcry for the head of Saddam Hussein — I doubt that few people in the political mainstream would have even considered the possibility of a second Iraq war at that point. And yet a Gallup poll in January 2003 showed a majority of Americans, 53 percent, supporting the decision to go to war; before the invasion, on March 24-25, 68 percent supported going to war.
How was public opinion shaped in such an amazing way? The Bush administration’s primary tool was fear. The government released a constant stream of ominous reports about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, culminating in such sensationalistic statements as Condoleezza Rice’s claim that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” These scare tactics were a calculated embrace of emotion over reason. The only way that President Bush could have convinced the nation to support a preemptive war against a state that was not a direct threat to the United States was by scaring us out of our wits.
I believe that most people would look objectively at the Iraq war and see that it is creating terror, not preventing it. Because dispassionate analysis and rational thinking currently disfavor the Republicans, they have embraced the politics of emotion. Instead of the old bleeding-heart liberals, today we have the if-you-don’t-vote-for-us-you’ll-be-bleeding conservatives.
Aryeh Cohen-Wade is a senior in Davenport College.