Establishment fearmongering vs. Tea Party fearmongering

Jack Hunter Contributing Editor, Rare
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Last week I read what was in some ways an insightful essay on the need for Republicans to have a more positive agenda. Then I read this:

Particularly among libertarians and some of those conservatives who identify with the Tea Party movement, government overreach has found its mirror image in fierce anti-government fervor… It is justified by an apocalyptic narrative of American life: We are fast approaching a point of no return at which we stand to lose our basic liberties and our national character. 

Then I remembered who wrote it.

Former Bush Administration officials Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner spent much of the last decade promoting the idea that the world would end if government didn’t take certain actions. The presidency of their old boss was an alarmist hit parade where if America didn’t go to war with Iraq, enact the Patriot Act, or bailout Wall Street, life as we know it might cease to exist.

Gerson was George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter and senior policy adviser until 2006. Many of us remember the President’s 2003 pitch for war with Iraq:

We are now acting because the risks of inaction would be far greater. In one year, or five years, the power of Iraq to inflict harm on all free nations would be multiplied many times over… We choose to meet that threat now, where it arises, before it can appear suddenly in our skies and cities… a policy of appeasement could bring destruction of a kind never before seen on this earth.

Of course, this fearmongering turned out to be false. No lessons learned, Wehner described the war on terror in the same apocalyptic terms in 2006 when 60 percent of Americans had already soured on the Iraq War:

They want to kill women and children and the elderly and the innocent. They want rivers of blood to flow from American cities and foreign capitals and other nations.

This is a war Islamic fascists started — and it is a war they intend to prosecute to the end…

Wehner would add, “Criticizing the surveillance of terrorists’ calls into and out of America is not a sufficient response. And weakening the Patriot Act is not a sufficient response.”

Not surprisingly, protecting constitutional liberties has not been much of a concern for Gerson in the age of Obama either, and Wehner’s main problem with NSA mass surveillance is that an untrustworthy Obama could ruin it for future Republican presidents. When President Bush bailed out Wall Street and the big banks in 2008 to avoid “another Great Depression” or to “save the free market,” such language was not regarded as over the top but accurate and praiseworthy.

Using hyperbolic language to promote government action is not peculiar to former Bush officials. Washington insiders in both parties do this regularly and on multiple fronts, where refusing to go to war with Syria, keeping the sequester or failing to pass gun control are framed as extreme abdications of governing responsibility.

Gerson and Wehner cite the following as examples of Tea Party Republicans using end of days language, “We have a couple of years to turn this country around,’ according to Texas senator Ted Cruz, ‘or we go off the cliff to oblivion.’ Obamacare, added 2012 GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, is evidence of a ‘police state.”

Perhaps some Tea Party Republicans are melodramatic. But their sense of impending doom over expanding government is mirrored by a political establishment quick to Armageddonize opposition to anything Washington does or desires.

Grassroots conservatives do indeed fear big government — but the political establishment regularly stokes fear to promote government. Who is more “extreme” is a matter of establishment or anti-establishment perspective.

And more objectively, do conservatives, libertarians and Tea Partiers have a point about unsustainable government growth and a rising $17 trillion debt? Do they at least have as much — and perhaps more — cause for concern, realistically, than Bush, Gerson and Wehner had about Saddam Hussein in 2003?

Today, what do Americans fear most? What are they right to fear most?

In 2010, Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen said, “The most significant threat to our national security is our debt.” Three years since Mullen expressed this fear, his warning seems more prescient to a majority of Americans. Compare this to three years after the US invaded Iraq, when most Americans had come to believe our initial fears were overblown.

How many times have Washington leaders stoked fears about something only to later be shown wrong or at least significantly mistaken? Concerning Iraq? The Patriot Act? Bank bailouts? The need to intervene in Libya? In Syria? Debt default? NSA overreach?

Will big government soon take America “off the cliff to oblivion,” as Cruz and the Tea Party warn? Or are libertarians and grassroots conservatives just overreacting? Time will tell.

Will the bipartisan Washington establishment ever stop fearmongering, given that it has been horribly wrong about so many things, for so many years and in so many ways?

Time has told.