11/16/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Exorcising the Ghost of Governor Wallace

Representative John Lewis didn't get it exactly right when he accused John McCain of unleashing the same hatreds as Governor George Wallace did when he ran for President forty years ago. But George Wallace's legacy is very much at stake in this campaign.

When Democrat Wallace ran as an independent for President in the 1960s on a segregationist, outsider, anti-intellectual platform he scared the always-insecure Richard Nixon into incorporating those traits into the DNA of the modern Republican Party. The GOP's political strategy since then has been an implicit appeal to fear: anti crime (against white people), pro faith (against those who don't share our values), strong on foreign policy (against wimps who won't keep us safe), outsiders (against the media and the powerful). Ronald Reagan, unique among Republican leaders, had the talent to describe this point of view by saying what he was for rather than what he was against, but the core message was the same.

Now, as the economy trembles, bin Laden remains at large, and so many Americans have made the supreme sacrifice in two wars -- but only one worthy of a great nation -- we seem ready to shake off the Wallace legacy. The GOP bogeymen don't scare us any more. We want smart solutions and we want an end to divisive politics.

As if on cue, the dying Fidel Castro, who remembers the America he visited in the early 1960s, spoke out as if America is the kind of place where those old hatreds define us. He and a tiny handful of the least thoughtful among the GOP campaign strategists are all that's left of a once powerful movement.

When Americans elect Barack Obama in a couple of weeks will finally exorcise the demons unleashed on our politics by George Wallace. It is a great accomplishment. And it means we can get back to long delayed work of building a government that is worthy of a great democracy.