The Triple Dog Dare

by The New Republic | October 14, 2008

John McCain's declaration that, thanks to Barack Obama's gibes, he will bring up William Ayers at tomorrow night's debate seems to me rather foolish on several grounds.

First, it's hard to see how McCain wins an exchange on this subject. Polls have suggested little public interest in Obama's past association with Ayers, and thanks to the McCain campaign's near-constant invocation of the subject very few people will be hearing about it for the first time. Moreover, poll after poll shows that voters believe Obama is talking about the issues more while McCain is attacking more, which is a real problem for McCain when people are justifiably worried about the economy.

It's not hard to envision how this may play out: McCain will raise Ayers in that awkward, semi-comic manner of his, as if he's not really sure it's something he wants to be bringing up. (Possibly moderator Bob Shieffer will bring it up for him, which would help, but I suspect any comment he makes will still sound uncomfortable.) The real-time viewer response needles will nosedive, as they have almost every time McCain has attacked in the debates so far.

Obama will very reasonably respond that it's a distant association, that he was 8 years old when Ayers committed his crimes, that he deplores said crimes, etc., etc. Then he'll turn it around on McCain, pointing out that it is all very old news, and the McCain campaign didn't think it was worth discussing until it found itself in a deep electoral hole. He'll accuse McCain of trying to "change the subject" and will cite the top McCain strategist who idiotically told the Daily News, "If we keep talking about the economic crisis we'll lose." Anyone who thinks such an exchange is a win for McCain should contact me immediately, as I have a lucrative opportunity in the housing market I'd like to discuss with you. 

Even apart from the particulars, McCain's promise seems to fail three general debating rules:

1) Don't fence yourself in before the debate begins. McCain now pretty much has to bring up Ayers, even if there are no questions that make it easy to do, even if his advisers decide the issue is a loser for him, even if, when push comes to shove, he feels uncomfortable about it, etc. If he doesn't, Obama and Biden's taunts will really start to stick.

2) Don't tell your opponent how you're going to attack him before you do. Yes, of course, Obama already had an Ayers response ready before McCain's comments today. But now he'll be that much more certain to have it neatly polished--and he'll be prepared to rebut McCain implicit claim that he's only bringing up Ayers because Obama forced him to.

3) Perhaps most importantly, if you've already lost two debates to your opponent, the second by a large margin, don't do something just because he dares you to.

McCain may not regret it quite as much as poor old Flick (below), but I wouldn't rule out the possibility:

 

--Christopher Orr

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