Nothing to fear

NOTHING TO FEAR…. The Wall Street Journal had an interesting post-election item this morning, with an anecdote I haven’t seen elsewhere.

As of June, the McCain campaign’s senior aides were feeling pretty good about their chances, until there was a strategy session with the top five McCain advisers. One posed a posed a question designed to give the campaign a central focus: “Why should we elect John McCain?” The five couldn’t agree on the right answer. “Without an overriding rationale, our campaign necessarily turned tactical rather than strategic,” one adviser recalls. “We focused more on why Obama should not be president, but much less on why McCain should be.”

It showed. I started making some notes the other day about the presidential election, the turning points, the strategies, etc. And it occurred to me that the entire Republican strategy was based on nothing but fear. Fear of change, fear of hope, fear of a skinny man with a funny name. Fear of socialism, fear of a tax increase, fear of government. Fear of anything that looked, sounded, or might be perceived as foreign. Fear of the light at the end of the tunnel — it might be a train.

It was an offensive, demagogic strategy, but it was not, on its face, ridiculous. Fear is a powerful emotion, and people made to feel fear can act with clouded judgments. Fear helped propel Republicans to significant gains in 2002 and 2004, and with even McCain’s own top aides unsure how to make the case for a McCain presidency, fear must have looked pretty good.

But as Ezra explained in a good piece this morning, fear could only take Republicans so far.

[Obama] robbed fear of its ability to work through quiet insinuation. He forced America to confront its own subconscious. Obama actually is black. His middle name actually is “Hussein.” He actually does know William Ayers. He actually was married by Jeremiah Wright. He actually had lived in Indonesia. These were not smears, though they were often used as such. They were facts. And this election was fundamentally about what happened when fear collided with fact.

It was striking to see how Americans responded to the fear-mongering. Obama’s lead over McCain in the polls grew in the face of the economic crisis, but the lead grew even more when McCain and his party tried desperately to scare Americans. The more we were supposed to feel afraid, the more voters responded to Obama’s message. The more intense the smears against him, the higher Obama’s favorability ratings.

There were quite a few messages for the political world yesterday, but one came through loud and clear: We don’t want to be afraid anymore.