The Red Phone

Dark, ominous music?  Check.  Vulnerable children fast asleep without a care in the world about the ever-present threats lurking around them?  Check.  Low, foreboding narrator’s voice?  Check.

All that’s needed now is a symbol–a symbol of fear, of universal terror…  A red phone.


This is the construct of the latest ad from Hillary Clinton; easily the most fear-inducing commercial put on the airwaves this primary season.  “It’s 3 am,” the narrator asks, reminding us that our innocent and defenseless children are tucked away in bed.  Meanwhile, the “red phone” rings in the White House, and the question is posed.

“Who do you want answering the phone?”

The implied answer is made clear in the next moment as a diligent Hillary Clinton sits up late under the dim circle of lamplight at her desk going over paperwork as the message approval tag-line replaces the threatening music.

It’s an interesting question, though I think one that might have been a little more interesting back when the cold war was still going and the direct line between Moscow and Washington DC could help prevent the kind of misunderstanding that could end in a global nuclear winter.  As it stands, the hot-line is less reality than it is symbol; a fading relic of an epoch when the US was mired under the constant threat of the Red Menace.

In today’s world the red phone has been replaced by Presidential Daily Briefings and National Intelligence Estimates.  It has been overtaken by “chatter” and keyhole satellite imagery and a number of other warning signs of imminent danger.  Those are the harbingers of enemies at the gates.  And the Obama campaign has deftly retorted that when Hillary did have the chance to answer the “red phone”, she failed.

The ad is yet another salvo in a barrage of failed attacks that the Clinton campaign has aimed at Senator Obama’s experience.  But what bothers me most is not yet another tiresome experience argument, nor the silly and historically tone deaf usage of the red phone.

What bothers me is the blatant usage of the politics of fear.

I’ve written extensively on the politics of fear and Terror Management Theory in the past, and consider such things about as low as one can get.  This was the prime mover behind President Bush’s 2004 re-election; the strategy was to keep America as scared as possible that making the wrong choice would result in another 9/11.

Now, four years after Democrats were defeated at the hands of TMT tactics, the Clinton campaign has dusted them off and used them in a last ditch effort to claw the nomination away from Obama.  Funnily enough, I don’t think it’s going to work.

Here’s the interesting thing to know about TMT; TMT dictates that voters who are rightly afraid vote for the charismatic candidate, the candidate that more aptly bolsters their world view.  People who vote under fear do not necessarily vote for the candidate that is smarter, per se, but the one that makes them feel better about themselves and their culture.

In other words, if voters in the Democratic primary vote out of fear, it is not likely that they are going to swarm to the person trying to depict herself as the intellectual candidate, but instead the candidate who is generally more charismatic.

If the Clinton campaign is attempting to trigger fear-based politics, TMT tells us that more likely than not, the voters would start running towards Obama, not away from him.

Something else I find incredibly interesting is that this is not an argument Hillary Clinton could rightfully use against McCain in a general election, highlighting another great weakness in her campaign.

The prime arguments that Hillary has used against Obama, that she is tougher on Foreign Policy and more experienced in general, will fall utterly flat against John McCain in a general election.  Among other things, this provides a strategic problem of either beating a failing game plan into a lost election, or pivoting at the last minute to come up with a new campaign strategy.

The Clinton campaign thus far has been known so far to be more adept at the former than the latter.

3 Responses to “The Red Phone”

  1. terry says:

    It was amazing how quickly the Obama campaign had a response and how good the response was. The news shows were already talking about it at about noon today.

  2. BoBo says:

    That ad just shows how desperate the Clintons really are. Another shameful attempt at fearmongering. I thought that was a conservative thing? LOL

  3. I don’t buy into the fear thing much. Terrorism is a scary reality; the commercial had to raise that notion to make its point. As far political commercials go it wasn’t that bad. I think Obama’s inexperience is a legitimate issue and Democrats had better think about it. John McCain and the GOP are definitely licking their chops. Maybe the Clintons have just played ticky-tack with so many issues, parsing the word “is”, etc. for so long that people won’t except credible statements from them but that commercial raises a significant issue.


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