Jonathan Alter: Another 'Hope vs. Fear' Election in '08

With the exception of such all-Anglos as Monroe, Fillmore, Pierce and Coolidge, none of America's 43 presidents has ever borne a name that ends in a vowel. We traditionally like 'em not just white and male, but plain vanilla. President Barack Hussein Obama would pose a shock to that system.

Opposition to him is not so much old-fashioned racism as fear of the "other," with the subtext not just our tortured racial history, but tangled views of class and patriotism. Fortunately for him, different strains of the American character often work to ease our anxieties: openness, optimism, hope.

Every election of the past four decades has turned on the tension between hope and fear. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson won by using fear that Barry Goldwater would blow up the world. In 1968, Richard Nixon used code words like "law and order" to exploit racial fears as part of his "Southern strategy." Four years later, Nixon, who believed politics is about mobilizing resentments, did it again, depicting George McGovern as the candidate of "acid, amnesty and abortion." Jimmy Carter won on hope over Gerald Ford in 1976, then lost in 1980 by trying to stoke fear of Ronald Reagan as out of the mainstream. Reagan, an FDR-like hope candidate, was re-elected in 1984 on a "morning in America" theme.

The elections of the last 20 years show both the potential and the pitfalls of a fear campaign in 2008. George H.W. Bush stumped at a New Jersey flag factory in 1988 to drive home the argument that Michael Dukakis, a Greek-American and the first clearly ethnic politician to head a ticket, was vaguely unpatriotic. It worked. Some Democrats are so spooked by this GOP history of successful slime merchants that they wrongly assume everything thrown against Obama will stick. Floyd Brown, the race-baiter who created the Willie Horton ad that year (depicting Governor Dukakis furloughing a murderer, who struck again), has cut an ad hitting Obama for being soft on "terrorist" gang members because he voted against extending the death penalty to them. This one fails. Similarly, Sean Hannity can't slam Obama for not wearing a flag pin when he doesn't wear one himself.

Hillary Clinton has echoed Fox News's guilt-by-association tactics—linking Obama to people he barely knows like Louis Farrakhan and William Ayers. The sad irony is that these are the same attacks used against her husband in the elections of the 1990s. The GOP tried to destroy Bill Clinton for his relationships (much closer than Obama's tangential connections) with Arkansas crooks, sleazy fund-raisers and unsavory women. But "The Man From Hope," while seen as less honest than Bush or Bob Dole, bet that issues and uplift were more important to voters than his character. He won, though the fears concerning what he had done to "dishonor" the White House helped damage Al Gore in 2000. The first election after 9/11 was, not surprisingly, a fear campaign, as George W. Bush persuaded voters in 2004 to be afraid, very afraid, of "soft on terror" Democrats.

The big question this year is whether voters are sick of fear campaigns. Hillary, desperate to stop Obama, is betting no. That's why she has Osama bin Laden and Fidel Castro in a recent ad. But I'm not so sure the 2004 rules still apply. This fall may be more like Reagan's victory in 1980 or Clinton's in 1992, when scare tactics fell short. Will voters believe that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.'s inflammatory sermons make Obama a dangerous black nationalist? Will they conclude that serving on a board with Ayers (along with many bankers and lawyers) and accepting a campaign contribution from him 12 years ago make Obama into a suspicious radical? Only if Obama fails, as he did in the last debate, to dispatch distractions in a crisp and presidential way.

Or it might be that these stories, even if discredited, offer voters a permission slip to vote against a man they consider, in the title words of a John Sayles movie, "The Brother From Another Planet." This is what the Clintonites have been arguing for months to superdelegates. They note that they don't have a problem with Obama's response to Wright, or to Obama's not putting his hand over his heart during the national anthem in a photo, or to Michelle Obama's views on race in America—but, you know, voters might. They are too susceptible, the argument goes, to GOP-style appeals to make reasonable distinctions between bogus character attacks and the real issues that affect their lives. In the next breath, these same veterans of the Clinton wars have the nerve to call Obama the elitist for a few ill-chosen words, as if their entire rationale for disqualifying him weren't patronizing toward average Americans at its core.

At the same time, there is new research to back up the Clinton argument that the election could be affected at the margins by racially tinged voting. Ever notice how Obama often seems to lose a few points between the final polls and Election Day? Well, when human pollsters call, they can get a slightly more pro-Obama result than when a computer voice greets the same voters. Apparently, some people will confess that they won't vote for Obama more readily to a machine.

Of course, the Clinton forces must argue that this country has a lot of lying voters, because right now Obama polls just as well as Hillary against McCain in every battleground state (including Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania) and leads McCain in five medium-size states where Hillary currently trails the GOP candidate.

John McCain, too, will likely face some tests in this area. The North Carolina Republican Party is already airing an anti-Obama ad featuring Wright. McCain implored the state party not to run it; he worries about a backlash. But McCain failed. When the "527" ads appear in the fall, the story will likely be as much about McCain's inability to persuade his own party to pull an ad (not a good sign for a potential president) as about the hashed-over and nasty content of the ad itself.

The point is, no one knows for sure whether America is ready for Barack Obama, and anyone who says he or she knows is full of it. This leaves superdelegates and voters all facing the same basic dilemma that has animated American politics for so many years. They can vote their hopes or vote their fears.

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