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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.
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
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
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
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