Forget about love and the politics of hope - the fear factor trumps them every time. Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain both confounded expectations to win their parties’ presidential nominations on the politics of hope, consensus and a bright new future without the mudslinging of the past.
But they head into the final stretch of a marathon election campaign throwing more dirt at each other than any other candidates in recent American history.
Mr. McCain, staring defeat in the face, is accusing Mr. Obama of socialism — the feared “S” word in U.S. presidential politics. Republican supporters are trying to raise alarms about the enthusiastic support the Obama candidacy has received from the likes of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In pretty much any election of the past 40 years, that kind of widely circulated allegation would have doomed Mr. Obama to go the way of Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota in 1972, Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984 or Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988 — Democrats all.
But this is no normal election year. The Republican fear card has been trumped — not by Mr. Obama’s “politics of hope,” but by a far more visceral and direct fear factor: the fear of millions of people losing their homes, jobs and retirement savings.
The fear of economic ruin appears to have eclipsed the Obama fears Republicans had sought to play on, namely, that he is black, relatively young, extremely inexperienced, was raised in a Muslim country, and was Muslim in his youth and has lied about it.
These attacks on Mr. Obama curiously parallel the hysterical religious attacks on another Democratic presidential candidate 80 years ago: New York Gov. Al Smith.
Smith had vastly more experience than Mr. Obama and had been the most successful reforming governor New York ever had. He had made his state’s factory inspections and safety record the very best in the nation.
But Smith was also the first practicing Catholic to be the nominee of one of the two main political parties, and he was subjected to an extraordinary campaign of vilification, hatred and paranoia that far eclipsed anything that has been thrown at Mr. Obama.
Millions of Americans in 1928 believed that if Smith were elected president, the pope would run the United States and might reactivate the Spanish Inquisition for good measure.
It was all nonsense, but it worked. The Democratic Party split down the middle, and Republican presidential nominee Herbert Hoover carried the South and West in a decisive victory.
However, 1928 was a year of continued prosperity, economic security and confidence, when Americans could indulge in such far-fetched fears. The election of 1932 was not.
Once again, Hoover’s camp tried to play the fear card against a Democratic presidential nominee: Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Roosevelt was painted to be too stupid, too ill from polio, too nice, too soft and, worst of all, too socialist to be allowed near the presidency. But Americans in 1932 were not generally afraid of Franklin Roosevelt; they were afraid of starving to death in the Great Depression. Roosevelt won the election by a large margin.
In American politics, racial prejudice, conspiracy theories and fears of international threats usually carry the day when the economy is good.
President Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory over Sen. Barry Goldwater, Arizona Republican, in 1964 was greatly boosted by probably the most famous political advertisement in U.S. television history.
It showed a little girl picking a flower just before a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile ominously rises into the air as a voice off camera portentously intones, “Vote for President Johnson.” The subliminal message was that the libertarian-leaning Mr. Goldwater would start a nuclear war if elected president.
Mr. Obama has benefited from fears that Mr. McCain is a warmonger and that his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, is far too inexperienced to be president, though the same argument can be made against Mr. Obama himself. In any case, the phenomenon of Obama-fear versus Palin-fear is hardly an endorsement of positive politics by either party in this presidential campaign.
Fear of Mr. Obama as “the unknown” appears to have been very significantly mitigated by Colin L. Powell’s endorsement of him Sunday.
Mr. Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, former national security adviser and former secretary of state, is the first black to hold each of those positions. He could have had the Republican presidential nomination for the asking in 1996 — and probably in 2000 as well.
Mr. Powell’s outspoken support is a powerful card to trump the fear cards still being played against Mr. Obama. A Zogby poll released Monday and taken after Mr. Powell came out for Mr. Obama showed the senator from Illinois doubling his leadership margin over Mr. McCain.
Mr. Obama led Mr. McCain 49.8 percent to 44.4 percent, according to the Monday tracking poll. On Sunday, Mr. Obama’s lead was 2.7 percent. Mr. Powell’s endorsement, therefore, reversed a trend in which Mr. Obama’s numbers had fallen against Mr. McCain’s for the three previous consecutive days.
For all their early talk about banishing fear, Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain are doing their best to try to make it their own. The fear factor hasn’t been banished from American politics; it is bigger than ever. But that doesn’t mean it’s irrational.
In the current economic climate, people would have to be crazy not to be afraid.
Martin Sieff is defense industry editor for United Press International.