Page: Cruz, Trump lead campaign panic parade

Clarence Page

What’s the most clearly defining moment so far in the 2016 presidential race? My choice would be Republican candidate Ted Cruz’s New Hampshire campaign stop last March where he demonstrated his ability to frighten small children.

“The Obama-Clinton foreign policy of leading from behind,” he preached passionately to a packed room assembled by the Strafford County Republican. “The whole world’s on fire!”

“The whole world’s on fire?” asked a clearly concerned little girl who sitting in the front row with her mother.

The crowd chuckled. Cruz, without skipping a beat, solemnly approached the little girl and offered comfort. “The world is on fire. Yes!” he said. “But you know what? Your mommy’s here, and everyone’s here to make sure that the world you grow up in is even better.”

Sweet. The audience applauded and a tense moment for the child, identified by news reports as 3-year-old Julie Trant with her mother Michelle, was softened. Yay.

Yet, looking back, this particular pre-campaign YouTube moment seems to have offered an amusing trigger warning: Campaign 2016 may not always be suitable for younger or more sensitive viewers.

Or to put it more bluntly: Be afraid, very afraid.

“If we must choose between them,” wrote political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli, “it is far safer to be feared than loved.” In that spirit, this year’s frontrunners in both parties seem to be telling us voters a simple message: Love me or hate me, but fear the possibility that I might lose.

Cruz’s fellow Republican candidates weren’t about to be outdone in their race to frighten the rest of us more than Cruz frightened the little girl in New Hampshire.

■ Billionaire developer Donald Trump: “Our military is a disaster.”

■ Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush: “In this administration, every weapon system has been gutted; in this administration, the force levels are going down to a level where we can’t even project force.”

■ Florida Sen. Marco Rubio: “Let me tell you, if we don’t get this election right, there may be no turning back for America.”

■ New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: “We need to rebuild our military, and this president has let it diminish to a point where tin pot dictators like the mullahs in Iran are taking our Navy ships.”

Even as Christie spoke, Iran was negotiating for the return of our ships and sailors — which, after all, were mistakenly in Iranian waters.

The GOP candidates also ignored how this country is, as President Obama said in his State of the Union address two nights earlier, “the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.”

But don’t let that make you feel good, say the Grand Old Party’s contenders. For them Trump has set a paranoid pattern, offering fewer answers than scary questions:

“There’s something going on and it’s bad,” insisted Trump on the issue of terrorism. “And I’m saying we have to get to the bottom of it. That’s all I’m saying. We need security.”

Only Ohio Gov. John Kasich seems interested in discussing policy and offering some problem-solving ideas. But he’s still in single digits in national polls. These days, fear rules.

On the Democratic side, a different pattern shows itself. As Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has gained enough support to possibly beat Hillary Rodham Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton’s unspoken slogan has become “No more Ms. Nice Lady.”

In their final debate before the Iowa Caucuses, she attacked Sanders mercilessly for — of all things — disloyalty to President Obama. That’s a smart move as they seek votes in South Carolina’s primary, where Obama has 90 percent approval among Democrats.

At the same time, she embraced Obama tightly enough to bring a side-eye of disapproval, I imagined, from the current first lady. Clinton has been called unlikeable by some of her fellow Democrats. At this point, maybe she would rather be feared.

Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency