On the Ayers issue, voter cynicism helps Obama.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 10 2008 7:56 PM

Putting Off Ayers

How Obama benefits from the cynicism he decries.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

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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.