Seven years ago, as he trudged toward a pre-Iowa caucuses withdrawl from the GOP presidential race, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo released a campaign ad that doubled as a horror movie. Soundtrack: an ominous ticking sound. Visual: a hooded man with a backpack sneaking around a mall and dropping his well-concealed bomb next to a populated plaza. The ad ended with a "boom," in case the message was lost on anyone.
The ad got barrels of free ink, which helped, because there was only about $100,000 in the Tancredo campaign account. Immigration restrictionists declined to comment on it. The press generally saw the ad as a kooky production from a fringe candidate. The GOP went on to nominate John McCain for president, despite his once and future support for comprehensive immigration reform.
It didn't occur to me until after I wrote about David Perdue's latest ad in Georgia that this sort of border panic is now in the Republican mainstream. Perdue, a businessman and first-time candidate, is on the air with this image:
The first problem with this ad is that the Texas Department of Public Safety did not quite say that. An Aug. 28 bulletin obtained by Fox News warned that "a review of ISIS social media messaging during the week ending August 26 shows that militants are expressing an increased interest in the notion that they could clandestinely infiltrate the southwest border of US, for terror attack." Perdue's campaign hit the trusty delete key on "an increased interest in the notion," etc., turning chatter online about how ISIS thugs would like to attack through Mexico into proof that they could do it right now. Just look at that grainy video of ISIS members walking through a desert! Is it the desert closest to you? Maybe! But these were just messages on social media, in the same forums where ISIS supporters have promised bombs in American embassies and attacks on New York City. They have been too busy getting blown up by airstrikes to pull that off; intelligence estimates say they're not even close.
But that's not what David Perdue says, or James O'Keefe says, or Rick Perry says. Three years ago, as Jesse Walker reminds us, Perry was telling Republican voters that "we know that Hamas and Hezbollah are working in Mexico" with designs on attacking America. The subsequent lack of Hamas attacks in Corpus Christi has done nothing to Perry's credibility—he is still asking fellow Americans to fret about terrorists creeping over the border. It's a spectacular campaign of misdirection, given that the problem posed by ISIS is that some sympathizers are already living in the West, traveling around legally.
Walker's whole column is worth reading, and it's worth watching how many more campaigns discover the "terrorists crawling through the desert" image. Other campaigns are attacking Democrats and the Obama administration for not seizing the passports or revoking the citizenship of Americans who sign up with Islamists. That's a much trickier and more resonant debate. Unlike the "terrorists on the border" attack line, it has not gotten a chance to look ridiculous after the panic settled.