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October 13, 2008

The Politics of Fear Comes Back to Bite McCain


There was a fascinating moment Friday afternoon that, more than anything else in recent weeks, points to the beginning of the end of John McCain’s presidential campaign.


During a town hall meeting in Minnesota in which the candidate took questions, and multiple people there called themselves “scared” of an Obama presidency, McCain responded by stating that while he feels he’d be a better president than Barack Obama, and his opponent is a “decent family man” we should not fear – comments that got the candidate booed by his own supporters. And when one woman told the candidate “I can’t trust Obama. I’ve read about him. He’s an Arab,” McCain shook his head.


Yes, McCain deserves some credit, in a reverse-Sister-Souljah-moment sort of way, for batting down crazies around him. But the moment raises a question: How can McCain spend two weeks pursuing a “be very afraid of Obama!” strategy, and then tell supporters not to be afraid of Obama?


The Minnesota rally followed a week of rallies and town halls in which an increased thuggishness was palpable among those present. There were reports throughout the week of calls of “terrorist,” “kill him” and worse, at McCain events throughout the week. None of this seemed to happen, it appears, before the McCain-Palin camp went to an all-Ayers, all-“who-is-Barack-Obama?”, all-the-time strategy.


In a way, this is not surprising. Way, way behind in the polls, both nationally and in virtually every battleground state, the McCain campaign in recent weeks has gone to a scorched-Earth, Karl Rove-inspired, culture-war-based strategy, which is inextricably linked with portraying Obama as an unacceptable “other” and questioning his patriotism.


They’ve done this while pushing silly memes that McCain himself clearly knows have no bearing on Obama’s fitness for office and are meant only to rev up the base. The base is revved up, all right, but the results aren’t pretty. And even worse, the campaign has dived headlong into the culture war, in a move that goes against just about everything McCain has stood for during the last decade.


After all, what are they implying when they ask “Who is Barack Obama?” or “What do we really know about Barack Obama?” How can they be surprised when, at a rally, the answer comes back as “terrorist!”?


This is what McCain gets, for embracing the politics of fear and playing around with the word “terrorist” – an even larger polling deficit and increased irrelevance. What has the campaign done? They decided the only way they could win was by stoking every fear and insecurity brought on by all those anti-Obama e-mails, and actively put the words “Obama” and “terrorist” together.


This is what happens when a presidential candidate’s tangential relationship with someone who tried to blow up a bunch of empty buildings 40 years ago, never killed anyone and was never convicted of any crime, is equated with present support of Al Qaeda. And if the Ayers issue is so important, why did McCain barely mention it for six months, before suddenly making it Topic A of his campaign?

Indeed, the only people who care about the Weather Underground or Bill Ayers are the people whose primary frame of reference is a need to re-fight the Vietnam War and the battles of the 1960s, even 40 years later. The Swift Boat Veterans attacks of 2004 – which McCain denounced as “dishonest and dishonorable” – reached a similar audience. But now we’re in the middle of the worst economic crisis in decades. Naked culture war appeals don’t work the way they used to.


But one of the key virtues of the Obama candidacy – as Andrew Sullivan pointed out in his “Why Obama Matters” essay in the Atlantic last year – is that, born in 1961, he’d be the first post-Boomer president, and the first major Democratic candidate in decades who didn’t come of age in the ‘60s. Therefore, the boomer culture war ends with him.


The Republicans, however, feel the need to play the same old culture war game with him – because really, it’s all they’ve got left. They can have all the votes of people who think Bill Ayers is more important than the economy. If they do that, they’ll lose, by a lot, and they’ll deserve it.  


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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