DERRY, N.H. — The beheadings of Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff by the Islamic State enraged and horrified the nation. But someone who knows her state down to the block and town green level said the killings were felt even more deeply here.
The threat from the Islamic State “is personal for us in New Hampshire,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. “You know, Jim grew up in New Hampshire and Steven Sotloff went to school at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden.” More than most, she said, her constituents see the Islamic State “as the threat that it is.”
Thus has Shaheen, a Democrat up for re-election this year, taken a hard line in supporting airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. She speaks in favor of help for “the fighters on the ground in Iraq” and building a broad international coalition to push back the terrorist group.
But a campaign advertisement that Scott Brown, Shaheen’s Republican opponent, started airing last week underscored a truth about politics: that a candidate’s actual positions often have a very strained relationship with what an opponent says about them.
Brown, the former senator from Massachusetts, decamped over the border after his defeat two years ago in an attempt to return to what its members extol as the world’s greatest deliberative body. Yet his ad had little to do with deliberation and played instead on emotion and innuendo. It reflected Republican confidence that whenever the country gets scared by terrorism, it reflexively moves to the GOP.
“Anyone who turns on the TV these days knows we face challenges to our way of life,” Brown says. At this point, a figure clad in black and carrying an Islamic State flag parades across the screen. “Radical Islamic terrorists are threatening to cause the collapse of our country. President Obama and Sen. Shaheen seem confused about the nature of the threat. Not me. I want to secure the border, keep out the people who will do us harm, and restore America’s leadership in the world. I’m Scott Brown, and I approve this message because protecting the homeland is the first step to making America strong again.”
There is nothing quite like hyperbole to grab your audience, so why not stoke fears about “the collapse of our country”? Then notice Brown’s abrupt shift to the need to “secure the border.” Here he’s exploiting the threat of terrorism to smuggle the immigration issue into the campaign dialogue. Since Obama chose not to sign executive orders on immigration before the election, Republicans have had to find other ways to keep anxieties at full boil.
Then there’s the attack on Obama and Shaheen for seeming “confused,” the ultimate weasel word that tells us nothing about Brown’s own views. And this is where Shaheen goes on offense.
“What does he oppose?” she asked during an interview in the athletic director’s office at Pinkerton Academy before she spoke at the school’s 200th anniversary celebration last weekend. “Does he oppose the airstrikes? Does he oppose building an international coalition? Does he oppose doing something about financing and recruitment?” She added: “If he doesn’t like any of those things, then he’s got to be for putting troops on the ground, and, you know, at some point he’s going to have to acknowledge that.”
Shaheen’s volley hints at how the debate over the Islamic State could take another turn before Election Day. As she suggests, it is hard to be more hawkish than Obama already has been without supporting the commitment of substantially more American forces. But this is one place where most Americans don’t want to go — a fact not lost on her or on other Democrats, most recently Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado, facing Republican broadsides on terrorism.
There is also at least some evidence that Obama’s tough stand may have abated his party’s vulnerability on the issue. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll found Americans approving Obama’s Islamic State policy by a margin of 50 percent to 44 percent. It was the first time since January that Obama had cracked 50 percent approval on any issue.
Nonetheless, Shaheen, who leads in the polls by an average of 6 points, would be quite happy to campaign on matters other than terrorism, not the least being Brown’s convenient adoption of New Hampshire as a new political base. When the former governor addressed the Pinkerton Academy dinner, she mentioned that her daughters had competed for state volleyball championships in Pinkerton’s gym. There is nothing at all “confused” about where her roots are planted.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.
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