Paul Pillar

The Consequences of Campaign Rhetoric

We all know to take with a big chunk of salt what presidential candidates say in primary election campaigns. They have to appeal to the party's base to get the nomination, the rhetoric will change once the general election campaign begins, etc. Sure, but ephemeral rhetoric can have lasting results, and not just in the sense of who gets the nomination. Michele Bachmann's comment, in an effort to whack away at Rick Perry's support, about how the HPV vaccine might be associated with mental retardation has caused understandable concern among health professionals that the remark will discourage use of a vaccine that has been proven to reduce disease, including some forms of cancer (and about which there is no evidence of association with autism or other forms of retardation). On foreign policy, a dominant theme in the Republican campaign has been to portray oneself as more militant toward worrisome states than one's opponents. Never mind what policies would or would not advance U.S. interests, seems to be the campaign strategy; just sound more angry and belligerent than anyone else about states we know Americans and especially that base don't especially like.

The states concerned take notice. And even though they have their own pieces of salt to put some of this rhetoric in perspective, there still may be negative effects on relationships and on U.S. interests to which those relationships are pertinent. The overseas edition of China's People's Daily has taken critical note of how Mitt Romney has changed his tune on China since he was governor of Massachusetts, when he talked of how the U.S.-China relationship “should be bridged instead of building a wall.” Now, notes People's Daily, Romney seems to be looking for opportunities to “attack China.” His inconsistent positions “demonstrate the bad trait of U.S. politics.” Of course, we don't need a Chinese newspaper to inform us that Romney is a flip-flopper, but the impression left goes beyond Romney. The Chinese article calls the United States “a country that is constantly looking for an opponent.”

Probably more dangerous is the rhetoric coming out of the Republican campaign about Iran—more dangerous because it propels a vicious circle of mutual hostility and threat perception that already has seen many rounds of escalation. Republican extremists and Iranian hardline extremists feed off each other's militant rhetoric. This is a rhetorical line that is likely to get only worse during the general election campaign. As Trita Parsi notes, “Whatever hawkish line Obama adopts, the Republicans will find a way to 'outhawk' him. As the memory of the Iraq invasion slowly fades away, Republican strategists calculate, the American public will return to rewarding toughness over wisdom at the ballot boxes.”

What I would like to reward at the ballot box is a candidate who demonstrates a sense of responsibility in realizing that campaign rhetoric has consequences that go beyond firing up a base or winning votes generally. Besides, if what a candidate says is all for electoral effect, how do we know he or she won't pursue policies once in office that are just as crazy as the campaign rhetoric?