Why Ayers Won't Work

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Andrew also reminds me that I meant to link to this shrewd Ross Douthat post on the problem with highlighting Ayers. In a nutshell, Ross argues that successful culture-war attacks on Dems have traditionally spoken to real social or economic concerns, albeit in ugly or grossly dishonest ways. So Willie Horton played on actual  fears of violent crime, and the Jesse Helms "hands" ad played on anxieties about job loss, etc.. But what underlying concerns does Ayers highlight? As Ross puts it:

Ayers isn't tied to any of the issues that are uppermost in voters' minds. He tells you something about Obama's judgment, maybe, and his ideological biases, maybe - and yes, yes, with enough innuendo and doomy music, you can imply that he tells you something about Obama's softness on Islamist terrorism as well. But think about the directness of the Willie Horton ad. America has a crime problem. You don't feel safe in your own home. And Michael Dukakis want to make it worse. Think about the directness of the "white hands" ad. The economy is tanking, and the Democrats want companies to hire underqualified minorities, instead of hiring you. And then think about the implications of any Ayers ad the McCain team could cut. The stock market is tanking. The global economy is in peril. And we think the most important subject on your mind should be whether Barack Obama was too chummy with a Sixties terrorist you've probably never heard of.

I'm pretty sure that's a losing message. And unless there's some way I haven't thought of to link the Weather Underground to the global stock market, or the subprime mess, or the cost of health care, or anything else that's actually high on the voting public's list of priorities, this "gloves off, dammit!" strategy will only serve to confirm the public's perception that John McCain - and the ticket he heads, and the party he leads - are completely, utterly, and hopelessly out of touch.

Agreed. My only caveat is that terrorism or national security could conceivably become the campaign's central theme again (if, God-forbid, there were a terrorist attack somewhere, or Putin rolls into Poland...), in which case impugning Obama's patriotism now could lay the groundwork for a more effective assault down the road. But it's a big gamble and hardly gets McCain off the hook for addressing the economic crisis.

Update: Ed Kilgore isn't so keen on Ross's post, arguing that the whole discussion is pretty cynical. I think he's a little too hard on Ross--who basically concedes that these ads can be substantively and morally egregious--but Ed makes a fair point.

--Noam Scheiber

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