Folks, you know I'm a politics junkie, but even I'm glad the election is done.
Of course, I'm glad it ended up the way it did, with Sen. Barack Obama decisively winning both the popular vote and the electoral college, in numbers greater than any president in a century -- numbers, I might add, that only the looniest of the loony, the real tinfoil-hat crowd, could attribute to "election theft." This multi-state drubbing can't be explained by a few dodgy ACORN registrations.
So what have we learned in two years?
One thing we can learn from Sen. John McCain's defeat is that you've got to have more of a message than "I'm not the other guy." Sen. John Kerry made that mistake in 2004, when his campaign theme was, essentially, "I'm not Bush." There were enough people appalled by Bush at the time (and I was one of them) that Kerry almost made it. But you don't win like that.
Like Kerry, McCain could never seem to stay on one clear message other than "Not Obama." Even that message was all over the map: Obama's an elitist. He's a celebrity. He isn't patriotic. He's a socialist. He's a "redistributionist." As my son noted, whichever candidate's ads you were watching, they were probably talking about Obama.
It's true that Obama ran a lot of ads pointing out that McCain's policies were going to be a continuation of George W. Bush's. Some called those "attack ads," but since what message McCain did manage to articulate was basically "make Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy permanent and keep Bush's war in Iraq going," you can't call them unfair.
Plus, Obama managed to keep his criticism consistent. Let's do an experiment: What percentage of the time did McCain vote with Bush? If the number that popped into your head was "95 percent" you begin to see the effectiveness of a consistent message.
But Obama also ran plenty of ads about policies he'd pursue: middle-class tax cuts, closing tax loopholes for companies that send jobs overseas, developing clean and renewable energy, etc. In the final week, Obama ran an infomercial that was seen by millions. One anonymous online commenter pointed out it didn't mention McCain once. "Could McCain have gone a full 30 minutes without mentioning Obama?" the commenter asked. Judging from McCain's ads, the answer was "no."
Another thing that John McCain could have learned from John Kerry is that in the 21st century, no one really cares about what you did in the 1960s, at least not enough to influence their vote. Kerry tried to run on his service in Vietnam, and I have to admit I cringed when he opened his convention acceptance speech with that line, "Lt. Kerry reporting for duty".
McCain mentioned that he'd been a POW so often that he turned it into joke fodder by bringing it up every time he was questioned on something. Everyone gave McCain respect for his service (certainly more than the Republicans ever gave Kerry), but in the end, they weren't going to make him president just for that.
We also learned that no one really cares what some guy you had a nodding acquaintance with did in the 1960s, no matter how rotten it was. McCain did everything he could to hang washed-up Sixties radicalBill Ayers around Obama's neck, and almost 64 million people shrugged and went, "So?"
(And while I'm sure there'll now be a flood of letters to this paper from bitter dead-enders trying to "prove" some tighter Obama/Ayers connection, just remember: No. One. Cares. )
Oh, and people apparently don't much care about some crazy thing your preacher said, no matter how many times you bring it up. Preachers say crazy stuff. No one cares.
All in all, the biggest loser in this election was the divisive Karl Rovian politics in which one candidate seeks to paint the other candidate, and by extension his or her supporters, as not just wrong, but scary, not "really American," even traitorous.
Or, as Elizabeth Dole tried to do, by painting Kay Hagan, a Sunday School teacher and Presbyterian Church elder as "godless," even having a strident female voice behind her picture crying out "There is no God!" as if Hagan herself was saying it. Dole got her head handed to her on Election Day, and rightly so.
All that said, I did think McCain's concession speech was quite gracious and classy. After all the mudslinging he'd been doing, however, it was kind of like the end of "Return of the Jedi," when
Darth Vader renounces the Dark Side, turns back into Anakin and asks Luke to take his helmet off so he can see him one last time.
In closing, I've been thinking a lot about a line in Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel "Timequake." In the book, people are just coming out of a massive disaster that's left its victims depressed and apathetic after seven years of suffering.
"You've been sick," the book's main character tells people, "but now you're well, and there's work to do."
Let's get to work.