Did McCain Walk Into An Ayers Trap?
After the last debate, Sen. Barack Obama noted the McCain campaign was making “over-the-top attacks … that he wasn’t willing to say it to my face.” Today, McCain responded that “I think he’s probably ensured that it [Bill Ayers] will come up this time,” at tomorrow’s final debate.
Something tells me if McCain follows through with that, it will be really be the end.
Having watched the very methodical and prepared Obama campaign all year, it is doubtful Obama would essentially dare McCain to say Ayers to his face without knowing exactly what he would say in response.
And what might he say?
Recall the first presidential debate. President George H.W. Bush made a predictable attack on then-Gov. Bill Clinton’s patriotism, and Clinton was ready:
JIM LEHRER: President Bush, the question goes to you. you have two minutes. And the question is this: Are there important issues of character separating you from these other two men?
BUSH: I think the American people should be the judge of that. I think character is a very important question. I said something the other day where I was accused of being like Joe McCarthy because I questioned — I put it this way; I think it’s wrong to demonstrate against your own country or organize demonstrations against your own country in foreign soil. I just think it’s wrong.
I — well, maybe they say, “Well, it was a youthful indiscretion.” I was 19 or 20 flying off an aircraft carrier and that shaped me to be Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and I’m sorry, but demonstrating — it’s not a question of patriotism. It’s a question of character and judgment.
They get on me — Bill’s gotten on me about, “read my lips.” When I make a mistake I’ll admit it. But he has made — not admitted a mistake and I just find it impossible to understand how an American can demonstrate against his own country in a foreign land — organizing demonstrations against it when young men are held prisoner in Hanoi or kids out of the ghetto were drafted.
Some say, “well, you’re a little old fashioned.” Maybe I am, but I just don’t think that’s right. Now, whether it’s character or judgment — whatever it is — I have a big difference here on this issue and so we’ll just have to see how it plays out. But I — I couldn’t do that. And I don’t think most Americans could do that.
And they all say, “Well, it was a long time ago.” Well, let’s admit it then. Say, “I made a terrible mistake.” How could you be Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and have some kid say — when you have to make a tough decision, as I did in Panama or Kuwait and then have some kid jump up and say, “Well, I’m not going to go. The Commander-in-Chief was organizing demonstrations halfway around the world during another era. So there are differences but that’s about the main area where I think we have a difference…
CLINTON: …I’ve got to respond directly to Mr. Bush. You have questioned my patriotism. You even brought some right-wing congressman into the White House to plot how to attack me for going to Russia in 1969-70, when over 50,000 other Americans did.
Now, I honor your service in World War II, I honor Mr. Perot’s service in uniform and the service of every man and woman who ever served, including Admiral Crowe, who was your Chairman of the joint Chiefs and who’s supporting me.
But when Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people’s patriotism he was wrong. He was wrong.
And a senator from Connecticut stood up to him named Prescott Bush. Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy, you were wrong to attack my patriotism.
I was opposed to the war but I loved my country and we need a president who will bring this country together, not divide it. We’ve had enough division. I want to lead a unified country.
Clinton brought up Bush’s father to make his point. Obama has an even straighter shot to take.
How hard will it be for Obama to bring up the deluge of smears McCain suffered at the hands of George W. Bush in 2000, a shameful episode that “>prompting McCain’s then-and-now campaign manager Rick Davis to lament and lambaste the widespread use of smear tactics in a 2004 Boston Globe op-ed.
How hard will it be for Obama to cite the repeated pledges from McCain to conduct a “respectful campaign based on the issues,” and humiliate McCain as the ultimate hypocrite who should know better than anyone the corrosive nature of smear-based campaigning?
With the public already rejecting the Ayers smear as totally irrelevant to their deep economic concerns, such a response would like be devastating to McCain’s already faltering campaign.
By the way, here are some choice excerpts from Rick Davis’ Boston Globe op-ed, “The Anatomy of a Smear Campaign” (emphasis added):
Every presidential campaign has its share of hard-ball political tactics, but nothing is more discomforting than a smear campaign. The deeply personal, usually anonymous allegations that make up a smear campaign are aimed at a candidate’s most precious asset: his reputation. The reason this blackest of the dark arts is likely to continue is simple: It often works.
The premise of any smear campaign rests on a central truth of politics: Most of us will vote for a candidate we like and respect, even if we don’t agree with him on every issue. But if you can cripple a voter’s basic trust in a candidate, you can probably turn his vote. The idea is to find some piece of personal information that is tawdry enough to raise doubts, repelling a candidate’s natural supporters.
All campaigns do extensive research into their opponent’s voting record and personal life. This so-called “oppo research” involves searching databases, combing through press clips, and asking questions of people who know (and preferably dislike) your opponent. It’s not hard to turn up something a candidate would rather not see on the front page of The Boston Globe.
It’s not necessary, however, for a smear to be true to be effective. The most effective smears are based on a kernel of truth and applied in a way that exploits a candidate’s political weakness.
Campaigns have various ways of dealing with smears. They can refute the lies, or they can ignore them and run the risk of the smear spreading. But “if you’re responding, you’re losing.” Rebutting tawdry attacks focuses public attention on them, and prevents the campaign from talking issues.
The only way to stop the expected mud-slinging in 2004 is for both President Bush and Senator Kerry to publicly order their supporters not to go there. But if they do, their behavior would be the exception, not the rule.