Donald Trump, Michael Grunwald observes, is "the ultimate anti-Obama." Barack Obama is a man of little drama, not given to rhetorical excess or rarely taking offense at personal slights, and whose mood swings range from A to B. Trump, though, has been "a vessel for anger—at Obama, at the multiracial and multicultural Obama coalition, and at the Republican insiders who failed to stop Obama."
Barack Obama was fortunate in 2008 to face a challenger who would not be that "vessel of anger." In early October of 2008, a supporter at a McCain rally haltingly stated "I can't trust Obama. I have read about him and he's not,he's not uh- he's an Arab. He's not-" The Arizona senator then took the microphone from her and stated "No, ma'am. He's a decent family man (and) citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about. He's not" an Arab.
Amid acclaim from some Democrats, some Republicans, and across the mainstream media, we did not fully appreciate at the time how tactically counter-productive (albeit honorable) was the candidate's refusal to reinforce the skepticism about Obama's background.
A similar error occurred in the campaign's messaging. After McCain had become the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, he launched his first general election ad, entitled "The American President."
Alec MacGillis at the time raised the concerns of many critics when he asked whether McCain was "seeking to raise doubts about Sen. Barack Obama, a potential opponent who has an exotic African name, spent much of his youth living in a Muslim country and attended a church run by a pastor known for his occasional anti-American rhetoric?" Quaintly, he suggested such "subtle contrasts may be a part of the McCain arsenal."
A couple of months later, McCain had dropped the ad, selected as his running mate a secessionist sympathizer from outside the continental United States, framed his ticket as "mavericks" (running against the first black major party presidential nominee) and consequently got smothered in November.
And eight years later, we would have a presidential candidate from the same party who had no patience with subtleties, and for whom there never has been a "maybe." Mexicans are rapists, Muslims are to be banned from the USA, women to be openly denigrated for their looks, journalists to be sued and bankrupted, blacks to be treated as possessions, foreign dictators are praised, and prisoners of war not considered heroes because they were "captured."
The last pertained to the infamous remark Donald Trump made about John McCain, for which the candidate was given a free pass by Republican voters, in part because it was made about John McCain, who chose not to be a fellow traveler in bigotry, and lost partly as a result. From that point forward, the GOP chose a policy of obstruction, voting unanimously against the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act but, as Michael Grunwald explains, "in lockstep against previously uncontroversial Obama priorities, like extended unemployment benefits, expanded infrastructure spending and small-business tax cuts." Grunwald writes
“A lot of us woke up every morning thinking about how to kick Obama, who could say the harshest thing about Obama on the air,” says longtime Republican lobbyist and operative Ed Rogers, who wrote in House Speaker Paul Ryan on his ballot for president. “We ended up where any hint of nuance or maturity just proved you were incapable of being the bull in the china shop that our voters wanted.”
While employing a "strategy of kicking the hell out of Obama all the time, treating him to not just as a president from the opposing party but an extreme threat to the American way of life," the GOP won back the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014.
Then they won back the White House with what seemed the most unlikely of candidate although, Grunwald argues
President-elect Trump is in many ways the logical result of their Obama-fighting, norm-violating, non-governing strategy. After eight years of defining itself as the anti-Obama party, eight years of anti-Obama messaging and organizing, it makes sense that the GOP will be led by the ultimate anti-Obama.
As will the country. John McCain played ball with President Obama, as did House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a manner, and they both ended up as losers. Then Donald Trump came along, promised Americans they would "get tired of winning," promised to throw his general election opponent in jail, and got elected. There is a lesson in that for Democrats, one they are unlikely to heed.