Get ready for a time warp – it looks like Republicans have turned back to the Cold War for some old-fashioned scare tactics. In a throwback to former President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 ad campaign, a new ad sponsored by the Republican National Committee asks American voters to remember “the stakes” of the Nov. 7 election before heading to the polls. It has been more than 40 years since Johnson’s campaign against Barry Goldwater, but “the stakes” remain the same: death and destruction – or, as we like to say these days, terror.

Angela Cesere

Of course, the enemy looked different in the early ’60s – less like a bearded, turban-clad combatant and more like a mushroom-shaped cloud. Johnson’s infamous “Daisy” campaign ad depicted a heart-wrenchingly adorable girl counting to 10 while picking pedals off a flower. When her squeaky voice reaches the number 10, the camera zooms in on her eyes, which morph into a horrific nuclear explosion.

Realizing the public has lost faith in Republicans’ ability to “stay the course,” the party is borrowing a page from Johnson’s scare-tactic campaign: If voters choose the opposition, they essentially are willing the death of a little girl picking flowers in a field.

The GOP ad, which debuted last Sunday on national news networks, opts for even higher drama. There is no sound except the noise of a ticking clock. (Or it is a bomb?) Shadowy images of Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders flash onto the screen as chilling quotes fade in and out, leaving phrases like “kill the Americans” and “suitcase bombs” lingering on a black background.

It certainly scared me – but not for the reasons the RNC had probably hoped.

I’m frightened that too many Americans will fall for this obvious manipulation of our collective consciousness. Republicans know our weak spots. They know we were all glued to the TV two weeks ago when an unidentified plane crashed into a New York City apartment building. They know Americans are willing to take off their shoes and be inappropriately “wanded” in front of strangers at an airport in the name of national security. They know words like “suitcase bombs” make our hearts skip a beat. And in these crucial weeks before the highly contested elections, I’m afraid the GOP will exploit our country’s deepest fears to maintain control of the House and Senate.

The Democratic National Committee is trying to lift the curtain and expose Republicans as the Wizards of Oz that they are. The Democrats have run an ad featuring President Bush using Osama bin Laden’s name 17 times in a single speech in September. But will voters recognize fear-mongering when they see it?

The irony is that if the Republicans had in fact made America safer since the 2004 election, they wouldn’t have to rely on an ad campaign so focused on fear.

Think of what the ads might look like if Americans actually did feel safer. They might go something like this: A cheery woman and her daughter enter an airport. The woman calmly hands her ticket over the counter to an employee with a headscarf, and they smile at each other sincerely. The pair then serenely boards the plane, and as the engine starts, the little girl begins to count to 10. However, instead of the camera zooming in on her eyes to reveal a nuclear explosion or a Taliban training camp, the woman calmly holds the child’s hand, easing her fear. Thanks to the leadership of George W. Bush, she feels confident in their safety as the aircraft leaves the ground, at ease in the hands of the Republican government.

Sound laughable? It shouldn’t be. But no one, not even the most Bush-loving advertising agency, could make an ad like that work. Americans do not believe we are safer. We don’t believe it because the number of soldiers killed in Iraq has more than doubled since the 2004 election. We don’t believe it because we’re hearing about the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the rise of Islamic extremism. We don’t believe it because if we travel abroad, our international reputation is embarrassingly obvious.

Republicans cannot rely on a campaign centered on the progress of the last two years, because America is slowly wising up to the fact we aren’t really any safer. The last card left to play is fear. It’s the same campaign strategy from 2004, and as everyone knows, a sequel rarely matches up to the original. The question will be whether the audience is willing to be scared into complacency again.

Whitney Dibo can be reached at wdibo@umich.edu.

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