Buckle Your Seatbelts

05 October 2008

A few years ago, John McCain said this on Newshour with Jim Lehrer:

I just have to rely on the good judgment of the voters not to buy into these negative attack ads. Sooner or later, people are going to figure out if all you run is negative attack ads you dont have much of a vision for the future or you're not ready to articulate it.
He was right. While it's obviously fair game to point out areas of disagreement with your opponent, the Presidency has to be won by appealing to the reason of voters and showing them that you have better answers to the problems facing the country. That's precisely how democracies work: two people have a battle of the ideas, and the voters evaluate those ideas to pick their next representative. Democracy only works when it is an adversarial process of testing different ideas against each other.

McCain's wife Cindy recently backed him up on this, saying "none of this negative stuff, you won't see that come out of our side at all."

However, as McCain campaign manager Rick Davis once wrote, smear campaigns can often work to swing an election. Now, just this past month, McCain has "shifted virtually 100 percent of his national ad spending into negative ads attacking Obama."

Aside from that, the Washington Post recently quoted a high-level McCain campaign official as saying: "We've got to question this guy's associations. Very soon. There's no question that we have to change the subject here." One of McCain's top advisers added "We are looking for a very aggressive last 30 days," arguing that "We are looking forward to turning a page on this financial crisis."

This is a textbook example of undemocratic distraction. What makes this so amusing is the baldness of it. The McCain campaign has said, point-blank, that it hopes for voters to stop considering the most important question of the day and instead think about how their opponent "will be too risky for Americans" due to "this guy's associations."

It's also worth noting that McCain himself knows full well that this is an undemocratic distraction. He said so himself back in 2000.

Sure enough, just as the campaign associates said, the McCain campaign has begun their latest gambit. According to Sarah Palin (the physical embodiment of issue-and-policy-avoidance), "Our opponent ... is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country... This is not a man who sees America as you see America and as I see America."

She's talking, of course, about William Ayers.

Just for a little background, forty years ago (when Obama was eight years old), William Ayers was a member of The Weather Underground. The group protested the Vietnam War by rioting and bombing government property. Ayers himself participated in bombing a statue dedicated to police officers. He went underground after his girlfriend, among others, was killed by a bomb accidentally set off in a Greenwich Village townhouse.

Obama has called the actions of the Weather Underground "detestable."

A few decades later, Ayers became a major political figure in Chicago, working with Mayor Richard Daley on school reform. He also became a famous writer, working at the University of Chicago.

Being a Chicago politician himself, as well as a Constitutional Law professor at the University of Chicago, Obama crossed Ayers's path more than once. They were co-workers at the University. They both worked on the same charity board (the Woods Fund) for a few years. In 1995, State Senator Alice Palmer even introduced Barack Obama (her chosen successor) to a few of Chicago's prominent politicians at William Ayers's house.

According to Sarah Palin, however, Obama just hates America so much that he decided to team up with a terrorist. This, of course, is nonsense.

Palin's attack begs the question. Why is this important? Do people actually think that Obama advocates violent protests? If so, how do people reconcile that with the fact that Obama has never done such a thing himself, has never joined such an organization himself, and has explicitly said that he does not endorse anything of the sort? I wish that more people would ask these questions. It seems like this issue is often just bypassed altogether.

The guilt-by-association game has always puzzled me in the way that it excites people's passions and overemphasizes what really isn't that big of a deal. For example, McCain recently appeared on the talk radio program of Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy and said this: "It's always a pleasure for me to come on your program, Gordon, and congratulations on your continued success and adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great." Do I think that McCain's views are identical to Liddy's? Of course not. Do I think that McCain advocates for unconstitutional behavior and lawlessness? No. What bothers me is that McCain has somewhat legitimized someone who belongs on the fringe of political discourse. Whether you agree with him on other separate issues or not, I'd prefer for people like Liddy to remain on the fringes of political discourse. It's bad that McCain praised this guy, but it's not the end of the world and it doesn't reveal any major character issues. Nor does it make McCain completely un-American.

Here is a little more background on Liddy:
Liddy served four and a half years in prison in connection with his conviction for his role in the Watergate break-in and the break-in at the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers. Liddy has acknowledged preparing to kill someone during the Ellsberg break-in "if necessary"; plotting to murder journalist Jack Anderson; plotting with a "gangland figure" to murder Howard Hunt to stop him from cooperating with investigators; plotting to firebomb the Brookings Institution; and plotting to kidnap "leftist guerillas" at the 1972 Republican National Convention -- a plan he outlined to the Nixon administration using terminology borrowed from the Nazis. (The murder, firebombing, and kidnapping plots were never carried out; the break-ins were.) During the 1990s, Liddy reportedly instructed his radio audience on multiple occasions on how to shoot Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents and also reportedly said he had named his shooting targets after Bill and Hillary Clinton.
McCain's connection to Liddy is every bit as substantial as that of Obama/Ayers:
How close are McCain and Liddy? At least as close as Obama and Ayers appear to be. In 1998, Liddy's home was the site of a McCain fundraiser. Over the years, he has made at least four contributions totaling $5,000 to the senator's campaigns -- including $1,000 this year.

Last November, McCain went on his radio show. Liddy greeted him as "an old friend," and McCain sounded like one. "I'm proud of you, I'm proud of your family," he gushed. "It's always a pleasure for me to come on your program, Gordon, and congratulations on your continued success and adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great."
If anything, McCain has done more to legitimize Liddy on the national stage than Obama has done for Ayers. Does Palin think that McCain hates American, too?

However, to come back to the main point, do you really think that the American people should decide on the next President of the United States by weighing the badness of William Ayers against the badness of G. Gordon Liddy? Will that allow us to make a better decision as to how to deal with the foreclosure crisis? Or our ballooning national debt? Or our rapidly increasing health care costs? Or our foreign policy decisions? Or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or our tax policies, which come up for revision in 2010? Or our next picks for the Supreme Court?

UPDATE: Bobby May is Treasurer of the Buchanan County (VA) Republican Party, as well as a member of the McCain-Palin Virginai Leadership Team. He recently published a bizarre article, arguing that Obama would paint the White House black, change the national anthem to "The Black National Anthem," replace the United States flag with Islamic symbols, divert foreign aid to Africa so that "the Obama family there can skim enough to allow them to free their goats and live the American Dream," appoint Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to high-level positions, impose reparations for the black community, and mandate Black Liberation Theology in all churches. For his part, Bobby May "denied it was racist."

UPDATE II: From The Hill.
Two prominent backers of Republican presidential nominee John McCain kept up the attack Sunday on Democratic rival Barack Obama for his ties to Weather Underground member William Ayers.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said on ABC’s “This Week” that the association with Ayers, host of a1995 event for Obama’s campaign for state senate, raised questions about Obama’s trustworthiness.

This is pretty clearly the new strategy.

UPDATE III: Now that McCain has tipped his hand, it looks like Obama is going after McCain's participation in the Keating Five scandal, which is actually pretty relevant to the current financial crisis.

UPDATE IV: Back in March, the McCain campaign sent out a memo calling for the candidates to "all follow John's lead and run a respectful campaign focused on the issues...." What a joke.

UPDATE V: Conservative columnist and frequent FOX News contributor Bill Kristol is all too happy to join the chorus.

Palin also made clear that she was eager for the McCain-Palin campaign to be more aggressive in helping the American people understand “who the real Barack Obama is.” Part of who Obama is, she said, has to do with his past associations, such as with the former bomber Bill Ayers. Palin had raised the topic of Ayers Saturday on the campaign trail, and she maintained to me that Obama, who’s minimized his relationship with Ayers, “hasn’t been wholly truthful” about this.

I pointed out that Obama surely had a closer connection to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright than to Ayers — and so, I asked, if Ayers is a legitimate issue, what about Reverend Wright?

She didn’t hesitate: “To tell you the truth, Bill, I don’t know why that association isn’t discussed more, because those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country, and to have sat in the pews for 20 years and listened to that — with, I don’t know, a sense of condoning it, I guess, because he didn’t get up and leave — to me, that does say something about character. But, you know, I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring that up.”

Palin doesn't understand why people's associations aren't discussed more frequently, and says that there is some vague, unarticulated issue of "character" here. Palin's husband, by the way, belonged to a secessionist party for several years. The party's founder has said, "I'm an Alaskan, not an American. I've got no use for America or her damned institutions."

UPDATE VI: From Brendan Nyhan: "What's especially striking about the know-nothing nature of these attacks is the fact that both Palin and a GOP flack cited a New York Times article debunking the Obama-Ayres hype as if it proved their case."

UPDATE VII: McCain himself joins the fray.

McCain is being less than honest more than once here. I guess that lying is all he has left.

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