Putting Off Ayers

How Obama benefits from the cynicism he decries.

John McCain wants you to consider whether Barack Obama’s association with unrepentant terrorist William Ayers makes him fit to be president. Actually, that’s not quite right: McCain and Republican Party leaders would prefer we didn’t waste time considering this question. They want you to simply reject Obama out of hand for his past ties. If that doesn’t work, they hope to raise doubts about Obama’s character in the past (why would he associate with someone like that?) and in the present (why hasn’t Obama been straight with us about Ayers now?).

At the moment, this strategy appears to be working only with Republicans. Obama’s poll numbers continue to improve. Voters want to hear about solutions to the current economic crisis, and this line of attack has nothing to do with that. The press is covering the Ayers association not as a question of character but as a symbol of McCain’s increasing desperation.

But there’s another reason this strategy isn’t working: Voters are cynical. Obama doesn’t want them to be, implores them not to be at almost every campaign stop, yet in this episode he benefits from their cynicism. If Obama weathers the Ayers controversy, it will be in part because voters judge his association with Ayers, and his weak answers about that association, to be nothing more than a politician’s garden-variety duplicity.

The McCain campaign faces a high bar in making the Ayers charge stick. It’s not trying to sway partisans—they’re already outraged. Instead, this is a pitch to undecided voters, and they’re thinking about something else right now. The Dow just had its worst week in history and the global financial markets are collapsing. You want to talk about what, senator?

So why didn’t this strategy die on the planning board? Because people do care more about character than they let on. They may want to hear about policies, but many make voting decisions in their gut. McCain is appealing to this instinct by raising two key questions about Obama’s association with Ayers: Should he have hung out with him at all, and should he have been more candid about it when asked during the campaign?

Now, if you’re a purist, you might say Obama should have run from Ayers the minute he learned about his past. Perhaps he should have behaved as courageously as Joe Biden says he did when he met Slobodan Milosevic. (Biden told the Serbian leader to his face that he was a war criminal.) Obama didn’t do this. At some level, he decided it was OK to have professional associations with a person who was once a domestic terrorist and didn’t seem to regret it.

Obama and his aides recognize this is an untenable position. So this week they have offered some late-in-the-game clarifications. Obama didn’t know about Ayers’ past—and when he did learn about it, he assumed Ayers had been rehabilitated. (His aides say Obama now doesn’t believe Ayers has been rehabilitated.)

From a political standpoint, finding out whether Obama and his aides are now telling the truth leads down a rabbit hole. The press can’t determine what Obama knew and when he knew it about Ayers’ past or Ayers’ level of rehabilitation. Only a revelation on those fronts would create the conditions for a big political moment of exposing Obama as a fraud. McCain can press the issue, but Obama’s statements muddy the case, which means more time for the McCain team spent on Ayers and less offering a positive approach to the economic disaster.

But maybe McCain doesn’t have to prove these details. Perhaps, his campaign thinks, the Ayers connection can be used to make the case that Obama cared more about his political future than Ayers’ past deeds. To get along in Chicago politics, this is the kind of character he had to hang around. It was a case of “blind ambition,” as McCain’s recent ad claims.

Perhaps, but Ayers was an accepted member of the community when Obama first got to know him. He worked for a university and was well-respected in education reform circles. If Obama was being ambitious, it was within community standards. To condemn him on this point, you’d have to condemn all of Chicago. As a political argument, that takes you pretty far afield for the voters you’re trying to convince.

Which brings us to the second question: Is Obama being truthful now? The McCain campaign knows that simply offering guilt by association isn’t enough, and McCain is uncomfortable about the tactic (or at least the way his supporters are interpreting his criticisms of Obama’s character). In Minneapolis Friday, McCain repeatedly told the audience—which was just as ferocious as his others this week—that he respected Obama. When a woman said she was scared of Obama, McCain interrupted her to say, “I have to tell you, he is a decent person, a person that you do not have to be scared [of] as president of the United States.” He was booed.

To shift from talking about Ayers’ past, McCain has said that the most important part of the Ayers-Obama relationship is what it says about Obama. As McCain’s new ad characterizes it: “When convenient, he worked with terrorist Bill Ayers. When discovered, he lied.”

It’s a legitimate point. Obama has not been candid. When asked about Ayers in a debate, he said he was “a guy who lives in my neighborhood.” This is true, but misleadingly so and has a whiff of the big weasel. The two men served together on the board of an anti-poverty group, and Ayers contributed $200 to Obama’s re-election campaign for the Illinois state senate in 2001.

So Obama was dissembling. But for this to be politically damaging it has to be a whopper of a fib—and it just isn’t. Voters are cynical enough, and have refused to punish either Obama or McCain for worse offenses, that they’re not going to find this disqualifying.

McCain needs the siren. If you’re a purist, you’d like politicians to talk straight. But that kind of purist would have to disqualify John McCain, too. One notable example was when he was asked about his opposition to Bush’s tax cuts. When asked in a debate whether he had opposed them in 2001 because they were “too tilted to the wealthy,” McCain offered another reason. He claimed he had opposed them because Bush’s plan didn’t include spending cuts. That’s not true.

McCain needs to win those soft, uncommitted voters who have moved to Barack Obama in recent weeks. But the Ayers charge doesn’t seem big enough to move them to his side. Perhaps that’s why the McCain campaign has also started pressing Obama’s connection to ACORN, Tony Rezko, and Obama’s former pastor. They’re trying to create a question mark about Barack Obama that’s big enough to make him seem too risky on Election Day.