WASHINGTON — Darkness is enveloping American politics.
With four weeks to go before the midterm elections, Republicans have made questions of how safe we are – from disease, terrorism or something unspoken and perhaps more ominous – central in their attacks against Democrats. Their message is decidedly grim: Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party run a government that is so fundamentally broken it cannot offer its people the most basic protection from harm.
Hear it on cable television and talk radio, where pundits and politicians play scientists speculating on whether Ebola will mutate into an airborne virus that kills millions. See it in the black-hooded, machine-gun-brandishing Islamic fighters appearing in campaign ads. Read about it in the unnerving accounts of the Secret Service leaving President Obama and his family exposed.
Republicans believe they have found the sentiment that will tie Congressional races together with a single national theme.
The National Republican Congressional Committee is running ads warning that terrorists are streaming across the Mexican border. “Evil forces around the world want to harm Americans every day,” one commercial aimed at Representative Anne Kirkpatrick of Arizona, a Democrat, says. “Their entry into our country? Through Arizona’s back yard.”
Republicans like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana – all possible 2016 presidential candidates – have accused Mr. Obama of leaving Americans vulnerable to the Ebola epidemic. Conservative media like the Drudge Report mockingly say the president’s name sounds like “Ebola.” The Daily Caller has christened him “President Ebola.”
And after news broke that the Secret Service had failed in several instances to adequately protect the first family, it was one of the president’s biggest antagonists on Capitol Hill, Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, who convened a hearing and upbraided the agency’s director for incompetence.
“I think Republicans want people to turn on the television and see that nothing is working,” said Robert Gibbs, Mr. Obama’s former spokesman.
Mr. Gibbs said he found it curious that John A. Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House, used the word “competence” in a recent interview when describing what voters would care about. But whether voters will place all the blame on Democrats is another question. “It will be interesting to see,” Mr. Gibbs said, “if they can convince people that they aren’t part of that dysfunction.”
When Republicans picked up seats in the House and Senate in 2010, they did so by running on burning emotional issues like unemployment and anger over the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
While anger and economic unease have subsided, polls suggest that people are anxious. A recent survey by The Associated Press found that 53 percent of Americans believe the risk of another terrorist attack inside the country is extremely high or very high. In a new Pew poll, 41 percent said they had “not too much confidence” or “no confidence at all” that the government could prevent a major Ebola outbreak in the United States.
That lack of confidence in the government is a sentiment Republicans are trying to tether to Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party.
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, ticked off a list of distressing developments in the headlines – the Secret Service problems, Ebola, the militant group Islamic State. “It’s the accumulation of ineptitude that’s hovering over Obama and, in turn, his lieutenants that are running for U.S. Senate,” he said in an interview.
Numerous political ads, paid for by both outside groups and the Republican Party, warn of the “dangerous world” we inhabit and “imminent attacks” being plotted by terrorists. One from the National Republican Senatorial Committee running against Senator Mark Udall in Colorado plays a clip of the senator saying that the Islamic State does not pose an imminent threat. “Really? Can we take that chance?” the announcer says.
One Republican candidate for a House seat from Arizona used footage in an ad that aired in Phoenix this week showing an Islamic State member brandishing a knife at the journalist James Foley right before he was beheaded.
Even the infamous 1964 “Daisy” ad aired by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign – which depicted a girl picking pedals off a flower as the clock ticked down to a nuclear blast – has been recycled by Rob Astorino, the Republican running against Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York.
Playing off feelings of anxiety is a powerful strategy for motivating the Republican base. And few issues have proven as potent when linked together as border security and the fear of terrorism. Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, said this week on Fox News that border agents had told him they apprehended 10 Islamic State fighters in Texas. The Department of Homeland Security said his statement was “categorically false.”
The issue also surfaced in the race between Senator Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis in North Carolina. Mr. Tillis, the Republican speaker of the state house, tried to connect border security to terrorism and disease in a debate this week. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “we have an Ebola outbreak, we have bad actors who can come across the border. We need to seal the border and secure it.”
The Family Research Council, which advocates on behalf of social conservative causes, recently convened a gathering of thousands of supporters in Washington, and one of the major topics on the agenda was terrorists sneaking across the border. The lieutenant governor of Texas, David Dewhurst, warned the group that prayer rugs had been discovered along the Mexican border. (Similar stories have popped up in the media since at least 2005.)
A sense that the country is dangerously off track is an increasingly popular topic of conversation in conservative media.
When Mr. Paul called into the Glenn Beck program the other day, Mr. Beck said he saw a pattern in Ebola, the lack of border security and gaps in Secret Service protection. (“I don’t think the president is safe,” Mr. Beck said. “And that puts our entire system at risk.”)
Mr. Paul agreed, saying something in our society was deeply broken. “The fundamental and inherent problem of government in general,” the senator said, “is trying to get government to work.” He also said Mr. Obama’s “political correctness” was keeping him from more aggressively containing the disease.
Erick Erickson, the conservative writer and radio host, wrote: “At least this administration is consistent. It will let everyone and everything, including pestilence, cross our border.”
“I bet, if we are patient,” he added, “the administration will even place Ebola with a nice family somewhere in Middle America and give it government benefits.”
Republicans said the hyperbole highlighted the perception that the president, with his no-drama air, often plays down the seriousness of the problems facing the country.
“The recurring pattern here is his unwillingness to admit things are bad,” said Stuart Stevens, the Republican strategist who was Mitt Romney’s top adviser in 2012. “It’s sort of like saying the world isn’t what it is, which is not an uncommon thing in the White House.”